San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

On the Road: Crossing Borders Across Central America

AT the beginning, it seemed a dauntingtask: driving a car with foreign plateson a six-country, 5,000-mile journey thatwould take me from the frigid plains ofMinneapolis to Costa Rica’s perpetualspringtime, through in-between countries– Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua– associated with poverty, violenceand corruption.The drive didn’t bother me; I havespent a good amount of time in LatinAmerica and I can handle the roads. I alsospeak the language. But one thing alwaysmakes me nervous: border crossings. I hadimages of paperwork problems, of fat,sweaty border officials telling me mypapers weren’t in order but they’d be willingto “overlook the irregularity” for afistful of dollars. However, my worriesturned out to be unfounded. Taking a carover five international borders was surprisinglyeasy.NECESSARY DOCUMENTSFor all border crossings, you need apassport, an original title for the vehicle anda valid driver’s license. The title must be inthe driver’s name. Make several copies ofeach document; every border will ask youfor copies, and if you already have themyou won’t have to stand in as many lines.I would also recommend having a stashof small U.S. bills. It’s better to changesmall amounts at borders, as the moneychangers generally offer inferior exchangerates. Additionally, most border crossingsare relatively inexpensive and border officialsappreciate small bills.UNITED STATES/MEXICOWhen driving in Mexico, it’s a goodidea to buy Mexican car insurance (yourU.S. or Costa Rican carrier won’t havecoverage), as drivers involved in seriousaccidents are held in jail until the case canbe sorted out. You can buy insurance in theUnited States at any Sanborn’s outlet, or atthe immigration posts on the Mexican side.On the Mexican side, it costs less than athird what it does across the border.When presenting your papers, you haveto pay a deposit on your vehicle rangingfrom $200-400, depending on how old yourvehicle is. You can use a credit card (Visa,MasterCard or American Express) to paythis. Upon entering the country, you alsohave to purchase a tourist card, which youmust turn in when you leave the country.The deposit is refunded when you takeyour car out of Mexico. Be sure to stop at theBanjercito office at the border to cancel yourtemporary importation permit when youleave Mexico, or your deposit will not berefunded and you may have problems bringingvehicles into the country in the future. MEXICO/GUATEMALAThis was the easiest crossing of all – no hustlers, shortlines and courteous, professional staff. I presented my papers,got my passport stamped and paid a small fee (40 quetzals,about $6, payable in the adjacent bank). An immigration officerglanced at the car, signed a form, and I was off. The entireprocess took less than 15 minutes.GUATEMALA/HONDURASThis was the first border where I saw hustlers, who callthemselves “border guides” and ostensibly speed up theprocess of getting the necessary stamps. The border guidesare familiar with the entire process and usually expect $5-10for their services. I employed one entering Honduras, but Istill ended up losing $50.The woman at the immigration window sported anunfortunate makeup job: she had decided, in a moment ofpast foolishness, to pluck all her eyebrows, and in theirplace had painted a couple of thick, caterpillar-like archesthat exaggerated the immensity of her fat face. She was likea horrible border troll. I gave her the car’s title and mypassport, and waited while she waddled around, stampingpapers and typing up my permit.When the formalities were finished, she said, “That’llbe $92.”I knew this to be false, and I let her know it. My informationstated that the taxes, temporary importation permitand mandatory insurance should have come to $42. Sheshrugged and said, “You want your papers back, don’tyou?”I said I did.“Then that’ll be $92.”I stomped around and complained, making emptythreats. “You could try again tomorrow, when the banks areopen,” the troll smirked from behind the smudged window,holding the documents ransom. I paid, but demanded areceipt. She put the money in her purse, took out a pen andwrote on a torn piece of newspaper: “You paid me $92.”This was the only outright act of corruption I experiencedon the trip, and I learned a lesson: don’t cross borderswhen the banks are closed.HONDURAS/NICARAGUAI employed a border guide on each side, one to help meleave Honduras and another to help me get into Nicaragua.Thanks to the guides, the process was relatively quick, andthere was no extortion at this crossing. Entering Nicaragua,one pays a small fee to import the car for 30 days andanother $12 for mandatory liability insurance.NICARAGUA/COSTA RICABorder guides hounded me both leaving Nicaragua andentering Costa Rica, though they did make things gosmoother. Sometimes, border guides will offer to “speedthings up” if you give a small (less than $5) bribe to inspectors,customs agents or other officials.Upon entering Costa Rica, every vehicle must be fumigated.This costs about ¢1,600 ($3.40). Then you park, getyour passport stamped and move to the Customs office,where you must fill out a form and have the contents ofyour vehicle inspected. Finally, you have to buy mandatoryliability insurance and get your temporary importationpermit in the customs building, which is 100 meters pastthe main building.Once you have your permit, you are free to circulate inthe country for three months. After that, you must eitherpay the import taxes or take the car out of Costa Rica for atleast 72 hours before returning. If you take the car out andreturn, you have three more months in which to circulatelegally. You can do this only once; then the car must remainoff Costa Rican soil for at least three months, after whichthe two three-month periods can be used again.Note: Regulations and conditions can change at anytime at all of these borders; it’s advisable to research currentregulations before undertaking a crossing.On Rental Cars and Border CrossingsIf you decide to rent a car in Costa Rica, be awarethat you won’t be able to take it over international borders.Officials from Economy Rent A Car (231-5410)gave the following explanation: “Because rental carsare tax-exempt vehicles, they cannot leave national territory.However, cars used for rental do pay taxes afterthree years and, if the company has paid the propertaxes, the car theoretically could leave. You’d have toask your rental agency.”None of the rental agencies consulted by The TicoTimes allows its vehicles to leave Costa Rican soil.Nevertheless, National (242-7878), Alamo (242-7733)and Budget (436-2000) agencies allow you to rent avehicle in San José and drive it to Peñas Blancas, onthe border with Nicaraguan. Once you cross the border,the rental company’s Nicaraguan counterpart will bewaiting on the other side with another vehicle. Thisoption has a $150 additional charge, and renters mustpay deposits on both vehicles.

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