USA-Costa Rica - August/September 2000 !
This is a selection from my daily notes. Feature stories will appear later in other sections. J-Philippe as well has selected a few days out of his journal. We write very differently and try not to write about the same days. Don't miss out on his journal. All underlined words are either links to photographs, other stories or things we refer to in our notes (to come back to this page use the back button on your browser).
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Who can you trust to quickly ship bulky, precious cargo to a location in Central America for a reasonable price?
The answer is NA. Not Applicable. The question is invalid. You do it yourself!
Three months ago we were faced with a dilemma. Past the halfway mark of the expedition, we arrived in Costa Rica and crossed over to the Pacific coast for the first time. The booming spectacle that met our eyes as we strolled onto the beach gave us pause. Our Feathercraft foldables, our trusted friends, extensions of our bodies of which we’d become quite fond, would have to be retired. Worn and weary from over 3,000 miles of paddling, their creaky bones would never handle the Pacific surf. Knowing this, I returned to the States to search for replacements.
Seaward kayaks showed the most promise. They pledged delivery in five weeks of two Kevlar-reinforced fiberglass, high-capacity expedition boats. The only catch was shipping. Delivery would have to be within the continental U.S as getting them south of the border was unreliable and would put the figure in the $1200 to $1400 range. Thus, after quick calculations and a quick assessment of the difficulties of moving them around on public transport once we had them there, it was decided that I would drive them down. Get the car from my sister’s place in Colorado, make it road ready, drive to San Fran load it up with the boats and the gear and point it south. In the abstract, it sounded like a reasonable plan.
A little exhaust work, some new shocks and she’s ready for the road, or so I thought. I got the suspension and muffler done in consecutive days, grimaced at the bill and pulled out the plastic. Like having teeth pulled, I wanted it all done in one shot and over with. It was not to be. 30 minutes after exiting the muffler shop my power steering started to go. Within five minutes I was muscling the wheel merely to change lanes. The Mitsubishi dealership garage was surprised to see me pull in again and ever so sympathetic when they gave me the news: broken gearbox and steering control arm. With an overnight shipment on the parts and a rush job on the labor, $686! The next afternoon after burning rubber out of the dealership for a second time, I thought I was home free. I got to my sister’s place, loaded up, hopped in to go and tried to roll up the passenger side window, no go! Back to the dealership we went. $45 and a new window switch later, I hit the road, stomped on it and didn’t look back. Two and a half days later, after pit stops in Bryce Canyon National Park and Vegas, I pulled into San Fran at midnight. I spent a day and a half tying up loose ends, packing gear and saying goodbyes to friends. I then set my eyes on the southern horizon and put my mind south of the border.
In the afternoon of Tuesday the 28th of August, I picked up the boats at the trucking company terminal in Oakland, CA. The clerk, just back from his daily, two-hour session at Denny’s, waddled out into the warehouse and dragged out the two well-wrapped boats.
“Sign here and I’ll help ya load ‘em.”
“What about damage claims?” I asked. “Shouldn’t I unwrap them and check first?”
“Well, my boss says we need to get the signature first and then you can do whatever you want.”
I smiled and shook my head, wondering how much of an idiot he took me for, and absentmindedly looked at my watch. Big mistake. Just past 4:00. 45 minutes to an hour of unwrapping, checking, rewrapping and loading would put me smack in the middle of rush traffic. The state of the Bay Area’s roadways everyday from 4:30 to 7:30 causes one to lose the capacity for rational thought. You’ll do anything to avoid it. Money, sex, food, and success, the four great hungers that motivate mankind all fade when upon glancing at your watch you realize that you’ve timed your departure poorly. Needless to say, I shoved the boats onto the roof rack and hightailed it, knowing that the traffic was only the first obstacle I’d have to overcome before exiting California.
Bay Area dwellers living in their dot com Never Never Land refer to the southeast sector as the armpit of California, San Bernadino, Fresno and the podunk towns in the Mojave Desert. After spending seven hours in an ailing 10-year-old Mitsubishi Montero with an engine prone to overheating and broken A/C, I’d have to agree. 80 miles an hour was the optimal speed to give me enough wind that I didn’t wilt in the heat, to give the hard-working engine enough air-cooling to stay out of the red and to minimize my time in that inferno. I peed in a bottle (a long-distance paddling trick) and stopped only once for gas to make it as short as possible. I didn’t quit for the day until after 11:00 P.M.
Up at 6:00 and driving by 6:30, I noticed a metallic clicking noise coming from the engine that I hadn’t heard the day before. As I had been driving with the windows down with 80 miles an hour’s worth of air blasting around, the engine could have been about to explode and I wouldn’t have noticed. As it was, it wasn’t far from the truth. The car had developed an acute case of oil viscosity breakdown and the engine was heating up and losing compression. I stopped at the first quick lube garage in the next town at 7:30 and was first in line for an oil change, and was on my way by 8:30. I reached Tucson Arizona by sundown, did some last minute shopping and holed up in a Motel 6 in Nogales at the border before 10:00.
I have to say that NAFTA has done good things for the Mexican border crossing. It’s much more efficient and much less hassle at customs. I was worried about huge duties on the kayaks and equipment. All it cost me was five minutes of curious questioning. The car was a different story however. Either a bond or proof of solvency (credit card) is required. Copies of all documents--passport, license, title and registration—are requested. Then you must fill out Temporary Importation documents and receive a registered sticker for the window, pay the importation tax and move on to Mexican Auto Insurance. There they kill you. $60 for five days! Meanwhile hordes of beady-eyed “cambiistas” with their stacks of pesos and dollars and little calculators, window-washer boys, and “guides” circle like hyenas. Saying no doesn’t work and you have to treat them like invisibles and wade through without making eye contact. Without any major hassles, I drove out of Nogales Mexico into the wilting heat by 9:30.
The Sonora desert in Western Mexico is over 600 miles long. It amazes me that anyone lives there. If the Spaniards had hit the west coast of Mexico first, they’d have said “Basta!” and gone back to Europe. The largest town you hit is Hermosillo. “Hermosa” in Spanish means “pretty.” The town is anything but. Even the mirage created by the heat waves that softens edges and creates shimmering pools of water off in the distance does little to improve the view. It’s industrial, dirty and soo hot that the asphalt sticks to your shoes. The highway is a toll road with exorbitant tolls every 40 miles or so. As well, it doesn’t circumnavigate towns, so you are forced to weave around pedestrians and pick-up trucks and Datsuns, relics from the 70’s that belch smoke and rattle as they roll, and also keep looking over your shoulder for the numerous 18-wheelers blasting their way south to the coastal port town of Mazatlan.
By the late afternoon I realized that I had grossly underestimated the amount of money I’d need to cross Mexico. Pemex, the government monopoly, charges well over $2.00 per gallon for premium gasoline, more than the boutique gas stations in downtown San Francisco, among the highest in the U.S. The tolls as well are steep. Upon reaching Mazatlan I calculated that I’d spent nearly $45 in tolls and $80 in gas. No credit cards accepted either!
I was so woozy after 600 miles of desert driving that I stopped at the first hotel I saw in Mazatlan. The sign said A/C, cable TV, hot water, clean, hygienic, only 110 pesos. That’s only $11, I thought, and pulled in. The sign and the entranceway should have tipped me off. High 15-foot walls surrounded the compound and colored lights illuminated a fountain with a faux rock cascade. And when I stopped my car to get out and go look for the office, a security guard yelled at me to continue on. Pulling around the corner I encountered a tinted glass window with a speaker. A voice directed me to room 18, and I drove around the corner and into the compound. Each room had its own parking bay with a curtain. As soon as I drove in, two parking attendants pulled the curtain behind my car. Sure enough, there I was, secretly sealed in a love hotel in Mazatlan Mexico. I paid cash through a rotating cylinder in the door, cranked up the A/C to full, ordered a beer from room service, washed off the road grime in a steamy shower, hunkered down into the hot pink bed, flipped on the movie “Waterworld” dubbed in Spanish and laughed at my folly and dumb luck. My amusement and sense of progress were to be short lived.
I got an early start at 5:00 A.M. From Mazatlan, the road traces the coast and I was looking forward to a change of scenery and fresh ocean air. The road soon changed from flat four-lane highway to a hilly and narrow two lanes. The traffic didn’t change. The big rigs that had passed me at 85-90 mph the day before, labored up and down the steep, twisting roads. Impatient locals would pass on blind curves, narrowly missing oncoming traffic. My cringing disbelief waned with my patience and even I began to pass with questionable judgment. I didn’t make it to Puerto Vallarta until early afternoon.
Puerto Vallarta was a jewel. I use the past tense because I can imagine what it was like 30 years ago. The tropical forest on its margins, the water and the color of the sand are stunning. The barrio slums on the outskirts and the chaos along the downtown strip are stunning for the opposite reasons. After an overpriced meal and half hour of Internet, I figured I had paid my dues to Puerto Vallarta and went on my way. Winding my way up the switchbacks on the south side, high-rent district of town, I discovered that the local cops are as crooked as the roads. A pick-up slowed to a stop in front of me and pulled halfway off the road. I was forced to go around and as soon as my tires crossed the yellow line to pass, a patrol car, that had earlier made a U-turn to follow me, flipped on its rollers. The cop confiscated my license and told me that as it was Friday afternoon, I’d have to come in on Monday to reclaim my license and pay the $50 ticket. I rolled my eyes knowing he had me. There was of course another way to deal with the ticket. I slipped 300 pesos (approx. $33) into his ticket book and he waved me on.
After a few more hours of driving, my frustrations mounted, as the twisting road didn’t change. I was averaging less than 40 mph and making no progress. A quick look at the map revealed no foreseeable change for another 300 miles. Sundown came and went. Driving after dark on poorly marked roads in Mexico is dangerous; that I knew. However, I was already a day behind schedule and JP was awaiting my arrival in Guatemala.
I pushed on through the industrial port town of Manzanillo. The entire town seemed to be under construction. My windshield was splattered with dead bugs and dust and created halos with the light from oncoming traffic and street lamps, distorting my vision and causing me to get lost in the construction maze. I finally passed through the town and drove another three hours until midnight. I was dead tired and pulled off on a dirt path up in the hills. I parked around a bend to hide the car and slept in the back.
At 4:30 A.M. on the morning of the day I was supposed to meet JP in Guatemala, I still had 1000 miles to get to the border. Sweaty, and bug bitten after a restless four and a half hours of sleep, I drove on. It took me until mid day to get to Acapulco. The scene appeared to be the same as in Puerto Vallarta and I wasted no time blowing through it.
The only highlight of the day, and for that matter the entire trip through Mexico, was the 175-mile stretch through the highlands of Oaxaca. The road left the coast and swept upward into a cool, grassy plain. The turns straightened out and I passed through beautiful country, like I’d always imagined the Argentinean pampas. Cowboys waved and gestured at the kayaks strapped to the roof. And I even dawdled to chat with a cute pair of gas station attendants, sisters, who giggled and wanted to know why I was traveling alone. In the wan light of dusk I descended back down to the coast, and by 9:00, well after dark, I arrived in a downpour in the surfing haven of Puerto Escondido and collapsed into a hotel bed.
A full night’s sleep did little good and I woke up feeling ragged. My car as well was in little better shape by this point. The shocks, new less than a week ago, had suffered greatly. The previous 1200 miles on secondary roads had taken me through countless towns and villages, all with their own version of traffic control. “Topes,” as they’re called in Mexico, are speed bumps that start on the outskirts of every town and continue with regular spacing until the other side. They can range in size and shape from a series of corduroy-like ridges that make your tires vibrate, to gently sloping, white or yellow painted bumps, to black asphalt mountains, unmarked and unexpected, that can rip off your rear axle. Cruising along at 60 trying to make time, I was often late on the brakes. The resulting jolt and bounce would cause the shocks to slam against the end of the cylinders and my head to hit the roof.
Fortunately for me and my car, the coastal route rejoins the Pan American Highway toll road in southern Mexico. It’s straight and fast with few topes and podunk towns and is eerily vacant. The locals can’t afford the tolls and drive on the parallel “Libre” road. My personal victory was discovering that the toll road, although cordoned off to local traffic, often has openings to allow farmers to drive their herds through. The openings usually traverse over to the free local road as well. So, upon approaching a tollbooth, I’d look for a cattle crossing, rattle through it to the free road, pass the tollbooth and rejoin the toll road by another crossing. I made great time, saved money and reached the border town before dusk.
Crossing into Guatemala can be your worst nightmare. First you must cancel the temporary importation documents and sticker at the Mexican office before the border. Then you drive 10 more miles to the border to find a half-mile long line of cars waiting to cross immigration and customs.
Without hesitation I bribed the traffic cop with $5 and was whisked to the front of the line with a “guide” in tow. His particular genius is having connections in the offices on both sides of the border and knowing the process inside out. Without him the whole thing would take twice as long. As it was, it still took me nearly three hours. I had to pay for copies of documents, for temporary parking and $20 for the guide’s services, but neither the Mexican nor the Guatemalan border officials gave me any hassle for the boats.
By late morning my car was chugging and laboring its way up into the Guatemalan highlands towards Quetzaltenango and JP. Everyone I’d talked to said that Mexico would be the hard part. From Guatemala on down, smooth sailing.
Quetzaltenango, or Xela as it’s called locally, wasn’t overly impressive. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t see much of it, concentrating as I was on finding the address JP gave me. When I did find it, we wasted no time in packing up and moving on. We were three days behind schedule.
By sundown we reached Antigua and looked onward to the border of Honduras for the next morning. For the first time in over a week, I had someone to share the driving and it was relaxing to drive among the narrow cobbled streets and gawk at the many colonial era churches. My shoulder and back muscles, which had taken the brunt of the driving, had been cramped and spasming for the past 5 days. They as well received a welcome rest.
Our tranquil interlude was cut short by what we heard about the border crossing into Honduras. Apparently the Pan Am Highway is the route and crossing of choice for 99.9% of the traffic. Trucks and cars line up to pass customs and sit in line for over a day. The truck drivers even sling hammocks from the undercarriages of their trailers to wait it out. Thus we chose the road less taken, the back road further into the interior that would take us into the Copan Ruins on the Honduran side. The Montero looked to get its first real workout.
The dirt road through the hills to the Honduran border and over to Copan is not for the faint of heart. Most travelers who visit the Mayan ruins originate from the Honduran side, from San Pedro Sula and ride in relative comfort. For the hardy few that sneak in the back door, it’s lots of bumps, a sore rump and 40 miles of 4X4 Low. But aaah, the border crossing. They draw columns in a lined notebook that serves as a ledger, enter your name and car information, type up your documents on a WW II era typewriter and send you on your way in under 30 minutes. They make you pay in Lempiras and give you a crappy exchange rate, but I’ll trade the hours of hassle for a few percentage points any day.
After the Montero’s valiant performance on the back roads and the slick border crossing, we expected the rest of Honduras to slide by with ease. Initially, the car earned nothing but praises. On the road to Tegucigalpa we encountered a roadblock where a massive landslide had filled in a quarter-mile long stretch of road. All the traffic except for a few 4X4 pickups was being diverted on a 30 kilometer detour. The knobby-tired pickups had come over from the opposite side and were slipping and sliding their way down the steep, muddy bank on the right side of the road. Not without our doubts, we shifted into four-wheel drive, hit the gas and spun, fishtailed and gunned it to the top of the hill with a few enthusiastic locals spurring us on. Alas, a mere hour and a half later the car compensated negatively.While driving the twisting mountain roads down into the city, the brake pads made their final sigh and began their death wail. The “screee” of metal on metal was unnerving. We used the motor to brake all the way into town. Our arrival at the garage was none too soon as the mechanic informed us that had we continued on, we would have damaged the discs irreparably. Two hours and $50 is what that pit stop cost us. What could possibly be next we wondered?
Surprisingly the Nicaraguan Pan Am Highway border crossing was uneventful. Almost as low tech and laid back as the back-door crossing into Honduras, we were through in an hour and a half. Avoiding Managua, we headed for the quiet streets of colonial Granada and were in a boarding house by late afternoon.
The prevailing road conditions of Central America do not prepare you for the section of Pan Am Highway in southern Nicaragua. In this case it was a pleasant surprise. The asphalt all through southern Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras is laced with potholes the size of bomb craters. Undoubtedly most are found on the blind backside of long turns. A smooth straightaway will lure you into cruising speeds and suddenly, halfway through a curve, with on-coming traffic, a series of holes, like a coral reef, lies in front of you. The wreckage of others before you, bits of tire tread and chunks of mufflers and undercarriage, lies strewn around on the sides. I kept looking for them on this section of road, checked my speed in turns and drove cautiously. It was unnecessary. The road was nearly perfect and we reached the Costa Rican border faster than expected.
Costa Rica is supposed to be the most developed, wealthy and enlightened country in Central America. One would expect that its infrastructure would reflect that. The border crossing is extremely inefficient, confusing and overly bureaucratic. With little traffic and no lines we were there for over three hours. And once across the border, the roads were a shocking far cry from those of its much poorer and recently war-torn neighbor Nicaragua. On the last 100-mile stretch into San Jose, through hilly, crowded terrain, my shocks went on strike and my engine overheated, and we bottomed out and burned oil the whole way. Once downtown, we had to turn the heater on to pull heat away from the engine which was clicking and thunking loudly in its request for an oil change. We parked it at our friend Lance’s place in a quiet residential neighborhood and the car sighed in relief as we gave it a well-deserved rest. Costa Rica at last. Over 5,000 miles of driving for a couple of kayaks still lying fully wrapped, untouched and unseen on the car rack.
I silenced the naysayers, all my friends who looked at my car and said it couldn’t be done, especially in under two weeks. I don’t know what the solo record from San Francisco to Guatemala is but I’m sure I broke it. I don’t know what the maximum recommended daily allowances for Red Bull and coffee are, but I’m sure I broke those too. I can barely turn my head to the side from the muscle cramps and my bowels are plugged up tighter than Fort Knox from the caffeine and dehydration, but I’m in Costa Rica. The next stage continues. It’s a kayaker and surfer’s paradise out there. It must be worth it.
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