A Travellerspoint blog

Going home

How to legally store a foreign vehicle in Costa Rica

We set out on the Pan-American trip knowing that we would have to complete it in two sections. We work six months out of the year, and do not have enough money to skip a fire season, so the only solution we could come up with was to store the vehicle in Central America, and to complete the second leg the following off season. Seems very simple, but of course nothing is as easy as it seems. Vehicles are worth a lot more in Central America than they are back at home, and apparently it used to be a really good deal to buy something cheap, drive it down, and flip it for more, funding the trip in the process. Of course, governments caught on, and the days of doing that legally and above board are over. We enter each country on a temporary vehicle import permit. These are only good for 30-90 days, at which point you and your vehicle must be out of the country. You are not allowed to sell the vehicle, and some countries will not let you leave without it (Honduras stamped the vehicle info directly into Paul’s passport). I don’t know what would happen if you were to try and leave with an expired import permit, but I have heard horror stories of confiscation without compensation.

The only information we found about storage was that you have to use a bonded government storage warehouse, which apparently is expensive, and somewhat inaccessible. Needless to say, we wanted to do it above board, and cheap. We started researching super early, but there is very little information on the internet about this, and most expats who will be in Central for any length of time, go through with the full import process paying the high taxes to get local plates and unlimited time. There had to be another way… we decided to arrive in San Jose early, spend a couple of days setting up the storage, and then book our flights home knowing that if this doesn’t work we might have to drive back in record time. We found it fairly accessible and a lot less hassle than we expected. Mario, the guy who works at the customs office at San Jose airport was super helpful (and hot), and with a little bit of perseverance and some knowledge of the Spanish language, I am convinced anyone would be able to get a pretty good deal.

1. Get to San Jose Airport

2. Find a bonded storage warehouse that suits your price range and expectations. These are privately run, so the security and set up varies a lot. Some are indoors, others are outdoors. Some quoted us six dollars a day, while the cheapest one (the one we went with) quoted us three dollars a day. Though there are many more, and probably better deals to be had with a bit of bargaining.The Spanish word for bonded storage is Almacén Fiscal, there are many by the airport, and the man in the customs office can give you a list of all of them with their phone numbers.
We chose to store in Almacan fiscal ‘El Coco’. This one is hard to find. The guy at the Aduana could not give us the phone number, but did give us directions. Follow the signs for the strip club ‘Fiesta Polano’. They start right from before you even get to the Aduana. Once you pass the club, follow the same road for 2km, and you will see El Coco on your right. Really cheap, but we did not look into indoor storage options, so I don’t know if they have it.

3. Store your vehicle. Drop your vehicle off at the bonded warehouse during their open hours. If it is outdoors, and you plan to store it over the wet season, you might want to tarp it, and prepare it for rain, sun, and general rough weather. The warehouse will give you a sheet. Keep this safe.
Dropping it off went pretty smoothly. We spent quite a bit of time sorting it out with a tarp. We had to insist that they give us a flat spot to park the truck.

4. Bring the warehouse paper, along with your temporary vehicle import papers to the customs office at the airport (Aduana Santamaria). Here they will suspend your vehicle import, and you can leave the country. Upon returning you will get the remainder of the time on your permit.
As with everything bureaucratic in Costa Rica, this can take a while. We were lucky to be in and out in less than 2 hours. The paperwork they give you is super important. We are making many copies.

Picking the car up might have more steps, so we will update this when we return in October. I hope that that picking it up goes as smoothly as dropping it off…

Posted by SusieMiller 11:54 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (7)

Nicaragua

Wind, Swell, and Sun

Crossed the border at Las Manos, where there were many truckers, but no major problems. Though we were through in less than two hours, this was probably the most hectic of borders to date. We headed to the colonial city of Leon to get some local currency. Paul had no problem at any of the ATMs, but I didn’t have any luck at the first 6 ATMs I tried. Don’t fail me now credit union… for a while it looked like Paul was going to be supporting me financially all through Nicaragua, but finally the Mexican BAC bank came through. After all this stress, we ditched Leon and headed to the beach, playa las Penitas for a couple of days. Our first impressions of Nicaragua were: it is crazy windy, things are more expensive here, there are more expats, the rum is better (Flor de cana), and there is less camping available.

We managed to download a pretty detailed map of the country from an on-line map site. and decided to take the coast road, which we quickly discovered was less of a road and more of a trail. Paul whipped out his machete, and for a couple of days we hunted for surf in the northern part of the Pacific coast. We didn’t find much that suited us, most of the waves are fast, hollow, beach break, but we did find some secluded beaches, and free camping. We stayed in one spot for a couple of days that had decent waves, but little accommodation.

I tore Paul away from the beach against his will, not quite kicking and screaming, to go inland to the colonial cities of Granada and Masaya. Masaya was a pretty chill place with a beautiful handicraft market for tourists. Bargaining had mixed results here, and I did not want to replicate the situation in the Antigua market where my ruthless bargaining offended the hammock salesman so much that he refused to sell me the hammock at all at any price. Thus, I dropped some money here on jewellery. Granada is super close to Masaya, and is a much more touristed place, but beautiful nonetheless. The churches are ornate, and numerous, the restaurants are beautiful, and expensive, and it is easy to see how people can spend a lot of time just wandering around and looking at things on the street. The food was all time. We ate, and looked at old buildings, and ate, and stayed in a seedy place, and ate more expensive food. We had to get out of there and back to dirt bagging it on the coast for the sake of our budget.

We cruised back to the coast, where we checked out a secluded beach, and for the first time since Belize we felt comfortable free camping on public land. The beach was close enough to the town of Gigante to have easy access to restaurants, stores, and beer, and the surf was good, but challenging. This was one of the best camping spots of the trip. Later we were told by a surf shop owner that there are lots of robberies at this beach. Lucky for us, we had no bad experiences, and the few people we did see were nothing but friendly.

We continued south in search of better waves. We got to the touristy, and overdeveloped town of San Juan del Sur. The first thing we saw was a gigantic cruise ship. The beach had no surf, and we wanted no part of the town’s party vibe. One of the guys working at a surf shop told us to head down the coast 20 minutes to a surf camp on the beach where the waves were supposed to be good. We got to the ‘camp’, and the waves were really good, though it was more of a hotel/ resort. The staff were really nice, and allowed us to camp, provided it did not look like we were camping. They have a no cooler rule, so we had to wait until dark to cook. It’s a pretty decent business plan since lots of people hit the beach for the day, and the restaurant makes money on beer and food, but in my opinion, unless you allow camping, you should not call yourself a camp. This was a common theme in Nicaragua. Most ‘surf camps’ are not camps, they are resorts, often all inclusive geared to a much higher income level than us. That being said, we had a blast at the beach, stayed for six nights, and the staff were amazing.

Our last stop in Nicaragua was the Island of Ometepe. We took a super sketchy ferry across Lago Nicaragua. Who knew a lake could have that much wind swell. Paul and I both for sure thought that Phyllis was going to tip over while we were being pelted with water that came up over the bow of the boat. For future reference: the four PM sailing isn’t full for a reason. We arrived on the island which is home to two massive volcanoes, one of which is active, and one of which has a lake in its crater. The island has tons of camping options, and we found a cool little farm to stay at called Finca Magdelena. This farm produces coffee, fruit, and vegetables, and has 24 owners. They run it as a cooperative and all come from farming backgrounds. Only recently did the Finca expand their services to tourism, and though the income is much more reliable and steady, the farm is still active. Apparently, the owners have had lots of offers from foreigners to sell the property for a pile of money, but are holding on to this amazing chunk of land, that feeds the 130+ members of their immediate families. It was really cool to see so much sustainable tourism on the island. We hiked up the smaller of the two volcanos to the lake which was a pretty magical place to be. I could have spent much more time exploring Omotepe, but we wanted to get back to the Pacific to catch a few more waves before crossing into Costa Rica and figuring out the storage of our vehicle.

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Posted by SusieMiller 12:26 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (2)

Honduras

Our Vacation from Travel

So, our habit of doing very little reliable research about a place before going there kind of bit us in the ass. Susie (the trusted navigator) decided that the border town in Guatemala woule be a good place to crash before crossing into Copan the following day. What I neglected to find out, was whether or not there was actually a town at all. We pulled up to the border at around 4pm, and saw only a cluster of buildings (most of which were photocopy shops, and administrative buildings). We asked the police man where the town was, and he informed us that there wasn't one. Oh crap, there goes our travel rule of not driving at dusk, or in the night. So, a late afternoon border crossing it was. I have since been demoted from trusted navigator to shady direction-giver. Luckily things went smoothly, and we were out of there in just over an hour. Next time, more research required.

We arrived in Honduras into stifling heat. After crossing the border, we bee-lined it for the bewpub near Lago Yojoa that we had heard about from some other travelers. Brewpub in the jungle? Yes please. We were able to camp there and sample beers that are many many shades darker than any of the other common local beers we have been able to get since Belize. We learned that the pub was originally set up by an Oregan man who recently sold it to another American expat, though a local guy (who had been the original owner’s right hand man, Rafael) now brews the beer. It was a cool little set up, with all the beer brewed in a climate-controlled shipping container. Of course we had to enjoy a few. It gave me some ideas for my future life in rural BC…

From the lake, we went north up to the coast, and stayed the night outside the town of la Ceiba. We had read in a guidebook that there was once a trailer park here, called Pelican’s Beat Beach Camp and Trailer Park. We read a bit about it on the internet, but found no recent information. Once we arrived at the spot, we were pretty sure the trailer park was not what it once was, but a very nice man named Arlington welcomed us and assured us that we could camp there, use the facilities, and store our vehicle while we were on the Bay Islands, all for the low low price of… a tip. He was extremely helpful, and the yard was meticulously maintained. It is just steps from the beach, and adjacent to some sort of tennis club. We were glad to find it.

With Phyllis safely stored, we hoped on a boat and arrived on the island of Utila. The boat is a giant catamaran, crossing a rough section of open ocean, very quickly, with windows too high to see out of. Needless to say, I looked green upon exiting the boat, but was happy to be on the cute and picturesque island of Utila. Immediately after stepping foot on the island we knew that most tourists were there for the same reason as us, to dive. The many dive shops on Utila are competitive with one another and try to snipe each other’s business by harassing newcomers immediately off the boat. We warded off their advances, and shopped around. Found a sweet deal and hooked up three days of diving. We got to check out some amazing coral, some interesting underwater caves, reef fishes of all kinds, turtles, rays, coruscations, and many other critters. Because we went with one of the more budget dive shops, our rickety little boat did experience some troubles. Our second day of diving the boat broke down, and we had to get a tow from one of the more upscale dive resorts. A bunch of young budget travellers on board our boat, and a bunch of older rich folks on their fancy dive yacht. We were still happy to be on this end of things... it added to the adventure. Diving is so much fun. When we boarded the boat back to La Ceiba, both of us were missing it already. We have already made plans to dive in Panama, and in Colombia. Since we don’t have an underwater camera the pictures from this section of our trip are sadly lacking.

We found Honduras much less travelled than other places we have been so far. Though people everywhere were helpful and gracious, some of the inland towns were almost uncomfortable due to the level of attention we received walking down the street. The country is noticeably more divided in terms of concentrated wealth, and sections of poverty, as well language and culture. English is predominantly spoken on the Bay Islands- the tourist focus and wealthiest region of Honduras. All told, Honduras was our little vacation from travel, a place to chill out and soak up the sun in one spot instead of making time and distance.

Next, we are headed into Nicaragua where we will see the Pacific for the first time since the Oaxaca coast in Mexico. We will check out the surf, and have some beach time before the end of this leg of the journey.

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Posted by SusieMiller 06:40 Archived in Honduras Comments (2)

Guatemala

Steep roads and car troubles

It has now been 25 days since we crossed into Guatemala. Our Guatemalan experience was full of ups and downs, starting with the very first day. We rolled into Tikal hoping to head to the ruins. When we got to the gate of the park; Phyllis started stumbling and eventually refused to move. We spent a few hours trying to locate the source of the problem, including changing the fuel filter, draining the tank and trying new gas, and everything else we could possibly think of. Nothing worked. The next morning we got a man in a pickup truck to tow us to a mechanic where we spent most of the morning getting our fuel pump changed. (Luckily we had a spare on board). This whole operation cost us 150 quetzals, equivalent to less than 20 US dollars. That’s good value.

While we were already in the town of Santa Elena, we decided to get a few other of Phyllis’ quirks looked at. We ended up meeting a very nice mechanic, and hooked up a deal to add an extra leaf spring in the rear to compensate for the heavy load. We were quoted two hours of work. After 6 hours of three men working busily on our car, in a ditch on the side of the road, it started to rain hard. Paul broke out the headlamps once the sun set, hooked up a rudimentary tarp shelter, and the men continued to work with questionable concern for detail. We drove away that night glad no one got hurt, and that our truck seemed better. We did in fact make it to the ruins the next day.

In addition to cheap mechanics and ruins, Guatemala has incredibly rough secondary roads. Some of them were more akin to single lane goat tracks than roads. We were always amazed to see busses tackling some of the toughest routes. One of the roads we took had recently been displaced by a large landslide. Another “road” included several kilometers of very large, loose cobble rocks which were incredibly steep in places. A by-product of the roughness is that our exhaust broke off. When we rolled into the town of San Pedro de la Laguna, locals covered their ears as we rambled up the steep cobblestone streets. As a courtesy, we got it fixed poorly but cheaply.

We traveled some on the main highways as well, where we were passed by almost everyone. The public busses (known as chicken busses) haul ass on the highway. They don’t look fast, being painted up school buses, but we learned very quickly not to pass one as it slows (not stops) to pick up or drop off passengers. Apparently these busses are bought in the States and imported to Guatemala where the engine is swapped for a huge twin turbo diesel. Competition between busses is stiff so the drivers race one another to pick up passengers first, making more money the faster they go. People jump on and off while the bus is moving and there is often a man riding on top of the bus sorting peoples' luggage while it whips along at dangerous highway speeds.

We spent a bit of time in San Pedro, where we caught up with some friends we had met in Belize. We explored around Lago Atitlan, taking boats around to some other communities, but had to take it pretty easy once Paul came down with a nasty cold. While Paul was recovering, Susie hiked up the San Pedro Volcano. It was a tough climb, but worth it for the view.

Our last days in Guatemala were spent heading north toward the Carribean. We crossed the border in El Florido and made our way up to the coast. Here are some photos from along the way.

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Posted by SusieMiller 10:22 Archived in Guatemala Comments (3)

Belize

you'd better Belize it

We crossed into Belize just over a week ago and have seen a large section of its south and its west. It is shocking how different Belize is from Mexico. Immediately, we saw much more linguistic and ethnic diversity than we had in most of Mexico over the previous ten weeks. Here in Belize, there are Maya, Garifuna (African-Carib), Creole (African-European), Mestizo (Spanish-Maya), Hispanic, Mennonite, European, Middle Eastern, and South and East Asian people. Despite English being the official language, people speak Creole, Spanish, Garifuna and Chinese to name a few (though most understand English and can communicate in multiple languages).

Paul and I hit the coast and made our way south where we were hoping to dive and snorkel on Belize`s famous barrier reef. Instead, we got rain and wind. We got a lot of rain. I guess we kind of deserved it after ten dry weeks in Mexico. What can you do though… just enjoy the change of pace, and wait it out, in the Caribbean trading our tequila for rum.

Another adjustment for us was the scale. Belize is a tiny country. It is easily driven, in its entirety, in one half day. This has allowed us to explore the more ‘remote’ spots in Belize’s many nature reserves relatively easily and quickly. There are some beautiful and relatively accessible spots for anyone with a 4wd vehicle and a bit of time. We saw some pretty great waterfalls, and met some interesting people (mostly American or European) who have created some pretty sweet lodges/traveler havens. We learned that it is possible and relatively straight-forward , as a foreigner, to own land and become a resident of Belize. Perhaps this is the reason for the incredibly diverse population. Belize’s natural beauty is hard to beat, and its laid back vibe is infectious.

We also have run into a fair number of travelers in Belize. Many North American and European vacationers en masse, but also some pretty cool overlanding traveler types. For the past few days, we have been rolling in a convoy of three vehicles checking out some sights in parks. Zach and Jill, and James and Lauren, all have the same Pan-American goal in mind. They have been a lot of fun to hang out with, and are headed into Guatemala with us tomorrow.

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Posted by SusieMiller 15:33 Archived in Belize Comments (1)

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