Thursday, September 18, 2008

Driving North in Central America

Ginette did all the planning for the trip. The plan worked well. See the earlier posts in this blog for day-by-day details.

April 13: We left Playas del Coco in Costa Rica at 8 AM and reached border at 10 AM. It took an hour on the Costa Rican side of the border and another hour on the Nicaraguan side to pay all the fees and get the paper work done. By 3 PM we reached the beautiful city of Granada, Nicaragua where we stayed.

April 14: We toured Granada. We love this city.

April 15: Granada at 8 AM and by 1:20 PM we reached the Nicaragua – Honduras frontier. By 3 PM we were in Honduras. The crossing cost us about $90. At 3:30 PM we stopped in the little town of Danli, Honduras and found a room at the Hotel La Esperanza (Hope Hotel).

April 16: There is not much to see in Danli. We were up early and headed for capital city of Honduras, Tegicugulpa could not be avoided; we feared having to go through it. Surprise! The city had some good expressways and we stumbled upon one that took us through the city in 15 minutes. We were really lost as we left Teguicugulpa but we kept heading north and did just fine. Be 3 PM we reached the little town of La Esperanza. This is a tough little town high in the mountains. I liked it. We found a good hotel.

April 17: We headed northwest on gravel roads and reached Gracias by lunchtime. After 92 more miles on great road, we stopped for the night at Copan Ruinas, site of one of the largest Myan ruins.

April 18: We remained in Copan Ruinas all day; lots to see and do.

April 19: Copan Ruinas, Honduras is only 6 miles from the Guatemalan border. The crossing required only 55 minutes. Winding mountain roads, good two lane roads take us to the outskirts of Guatemala City (“Guat City”) by noon. We dreaded crossing Guat City but there were no real choices (all roads lead to Guat City). That afternoon we found a great place to overnight in Parramos, Guatemala.

April 20: We quickly arrived in Antigua, Guatemala. Northern Guatemala is our favorite place.

April 21: Today’s destination was Panajachel on the edge of the great Lake Atitlan.

April 22: Chichicastenango is our destination, a day trip. Great place on market day, Sunday. We returned to Panajachel for the night.

April 23: Long drive today from Guatemala to San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico via Huehuetenango and La Mesilla.

April 24: We started at San Cristobal and it took all day to get to Palenque, a distance of 132 miles (213 km). That gave us an average speed of 29 miles per hour (46 k/hr).

April 25: We visited the Mayan ruins at Palenque. By 11 AM we left and headed for Veracruz. We covered almost 400 miles in the afternoon, averaging about 65 mph and often running along at 80 mph.

April 26: Veracruz to Tampico

April 27: Tampico to Brownsville, Texas.

15 days, a great trip!

Driving South In Central America

January 2007

We started at Brownsville Texas because this border crossing does not allow commercial trucks and is thus not too congested. We wanted to skirt around Mexico City at all costs.

Our objective was to reach Costa Rica as quickly as possible, doing almost no sight seeing. Ginette did all of the planning. See the earliest posts in this blog for day-by-day details.

Jan 7: This morning, we crossed into Mexico at Brownsville, stayed overnight in Tampico. Great city. In Mexico, when you cross from one Mexican state to another you will find an army check point. When these check points see you are a tourist, they generally wave you right through without stopping. They seem more intent on checking the local people.

Jan 8: We stayed over night at Veracruz. Driving through Mexico altered my image of Mexico. Mexico is now a modern state. It has a strong middle class. Things work in Mexico. The old images of Mexico that I developed from films have been broken.

Jan 9: cut across Mexico to the Pacific coast (bypassing Mixico City) overnight at a little place, Tuxtla Gutierrez

Jan 10: Then we started up into the southern Mountains, staying overnight at San Cristebal. This is a beautiful city. I would like to return here.

Jan 11 We crossed into Guatemala at La Mesilla and reached Huehuetenango for the night. We got into a grid lock coming into Huehue and we got lost coming out of Huehue.

Jan 12 We crossed into El Salvador.

Jan 13 Crossed into Honduras and stayed overnight in northern Nicaragua, Choluteca I think.

Jan 14 Crossed into Costa Rica and reached Playas del Coco at 4:30 pm

7 day transit. Not bad for gringos!

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.