Okay, so I have heard all the bad stories (carjackings, robberies and even murders) about driving from the US to Costa Rica. However, if you like the adventure (which it is a lifetime experience) it’s an expensive (about 3-$5000) trip, and time consuming (about 3-4 weeks). It is not great idea for a couple of hot females or an elderly couple to do this. First the trip is long, the roads are often bad and each border crossing is a real hassle and can be expensive. You need to be fully insured for emergency medical and health care plus insure the car. At each crossing you can expect a hassle for the car’s paperwork. If you do get into a hassle or delay over something, and traveling with a female, make her rise a stink at you. Latin men think this is funny and it will help you get through faster because they will feel sorry for you!
- You better speak Spanish very well. Very little English is spoken (if not none) at border crossings. Don/t speaka the Spanish bueno, don/ta go!
- Keep to the main roads. Use the toll roads when possible.
- Get all (or most of them) your car permits in the States from the Consulates offices.
- Do not carry any guns/ammo, nor drugs or anything that may be considered illegal.
- Get an international cell phone or have a laptop with WyFi so you can send emails. Just about all large hotels have free WyFi
- Check in with friends and relatives so they know where you are.
- Get good maps and plan your trip as best you can.
- Never, never pull over to the side of the road, or take some isolate road, unless it is an emergency.
- Always try and follow and stay in a group of cars/truckers. This provides the old concept, “safety in numbers.”
- Never drive at night.
Driving on the Pan American Highway is relatively easy, and the best way is to avoid El Salvador if possible. The biggest headaches/hassles will be at the borders and figure anywhere from average of 2-3 hours to a full day getting through immigration and customs.
There are two borders that are the worst of the worst and that is Honduras and leaving El Salvador and going into Honduras- expect a full day at these borders. At either, try and arrive EARLY, because the bank you need to finish your passport application closes at 5 p.m.. If that happens, you will be spending the night in your car in “No Mans Land” between the two nations to finish your paperwork in the morning when the bank opens.
All of the borders are set up in FOUR similar ways and you will usually enter about 5-8 different offices, with 5-10 different stamps for your passport and paperwork before you can get out of there.
IMMIGRATION – this is where you go to have yourself stamped out (in your passport) of the country you are exiting, and into the country you are entering. All borders are very ‘Military’ looking Expect to be stopped frequently by ‘Military’ with machine guns at check point’s especially in Mexico. In Mexico one time I’ve had the muzzle of a machine gun poking my ribs while helping me identifying personal articles and search the car. It is a good idea to have boxes of candy or cookies or cold soda so you can offer it to the officers.
CUSTOMS– this is where you import/Export your car into and out of the countries you are visiting. This is the building that demands the majority of your time. Before entering the customs building make sure you have your car sprayed if it is required, and insurance for the nation you are entering if it is required. SPRAY- Some Nations require that your car be sprayed for bugs before you enter (Belize and Costa Rica). This service costs $3-5 and is performed at the border.
HELPERS – (I call them Klingons) that will tell you if you give them some money they will help speed up the process. Be careful, some are just tiny con men and you will hand them some money, and “Bingo,” they are gone and why speaking Spanish is most helpful. Usually they are local kids that will surround your car offering to guide you through the process. These kids take you to every booth in both immigration and customs that you need to go to; they translate for you, make sure you have all the paperwork signed by the people who need to sign it, instruct you on how and where to pay the import fees, and help you bribe the correct officials. If you use their services you should pay them US$5-10 (total) depending on how long the ordeal took. These kids can also be useful when you have to leave your car to enter customs, they will watch your car when it is unattended.
INSURANCE– The only 2 nations that require that you buy their national insurance before importing a car (which is what you are doing) are Belize and Costa Rica. This insurance is sold at the border and is really inexpensive. Insurance is not required in Mexico; however, you would be really stupid not purchasing Mexican auto insurance. In Mexico, if you are involved in an accident for any reason, both parties are held in jail until the police figure out who’s fault the accident is. This can take days to weeks…. and guess whose fault it always ends up being when there is a gringo involved. If you have Mexican Insurance, the policy guarantees to pay the penalty if (when) the accident ends up being your fault. You won’t go to jail or have a huge fine to pay in Mexico if you buy the insurance.
LA MORDIDA, or “the bite”, AKA, the bribe – this says it all. Always carry a wad (about $100) of ones and fives, nothing more. If officials see a few twenties, they will want it. You will be passing bills out like candy!
Upon arrival at any border, you will be given a ton of forms. These forms you will have to record the VIN number of the vehicle, as well as the make, model, age and kilometers on the odometer. Be organized with folders on each border. So when asked for your paperwork in Mexico at the Costa Rica Border, you are not fumbling around looking for it. Be organize and your entry will be easier. When you are asked for your paperwork, slip the official a couple of fivers.
After you complete your paperwork, an inspector will take a look at your car. This is really straight forward, he will ask you about the stuff you have inside in plain sight, personal question, where you going? etc. Be polite and answer truthfully.
The Customs officials will put a large colored stamp(s) in your passport (your passport will be filled up quick). On these stamps they will write the date, car info, and VIN #. This is a temporary import stamp for your car. If it expires in Costa Rica, it will cost you a heavy fine and/or a bribe/fee to a Customs Official that cleared things right up.
You are finished when the stamp for the car is in your passport, your car has been inspected, defumed (if required) and the customs officials have handed you your signed/stamped papers. He will then point into the right direction, and if things go well, wish you a good journey.
Sound easy, not really, it is the hurry up and wait syndrome. Remember, you are on their time, just because there seems to be ONLY four cars in front of you, it may take hours before your turn comes up. Other than that, have a great time!