Category Archives: Overlander

A Week of Tacos in San Cristobal

San Cristobal

June 27 – July 1

We nearly never made it through Chiapas, thanks largely to the ever increasing road blockades happening throughout Southern Mexico (specifically Chiapas & Oaxaca). Prior to San Cristobal we met the first one. While we can truly appreciate the strife and anger of the teachers who are demonstrating, we really did not want to be stopped (again) from getting to our destination. Thankfully, at least at this blockade, the teachers were unarmed, there were no police present and we sort of just pushed our way through…gently of course because we like teachers.

San Cristobal is another perfect city, similar in feeling to Antiqua, Guatemala. Colonial, beautifully chilly, with its culture and vibes yet to be tarnished by the gringo effect. We spent nearly a week here, stocking up on our first Mexican Tacos and working out some business. As we got to know the city better and better, we also got to find the cheaper and cheaper tacos. Eventually, we stumbled upon the 2 peso (14 cent cdn) Al Pastor tacos by the public market. BINGO.

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If you are in the city, you have to experience the absolutely insane market which boasts an extremely eclectic variety of goods; anything from plastic goods manufactured in China, to traditional medicine, to live chickens (30 pesos) hanging off ladies arms like purses, to perfectly balanced produce, to withered mountain women selling sheep wool.

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We bought 3 different kinds of chilis in order to test out the spiciness levels and try to kill the suspected parasite that is worming its way through our body. These are listed by heat level, hottest first.

Later, I made them into a hot sauce, which was delicious for the first microsecond and then completely inedible.

Peruvian White Habanero Peppers 100000 – 350000 Scovilles

DSC02297Aji Variation (we suspect) Scovilles unknown

DSC02300Bird’s Eye Pepper 100000 – 350000 Scovilles

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The Mayan Medicine Museum is obviously a place to learn about the rich mayan medicine still being practiced throughout southern Mexico, but also a place of worship, and a practicing mayan herbal pharmacy. We were lucky enough to be there during celebrations for a local holiday which included homemade fire crackers and a gathering within the chapel where we were offered refreshments (Orange Crush) by the attendees.

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Although we are not certain, we are deeply suspicious of the mannequins. The detail is so great on the hands and feet we suspect they may be actual embalmed humans…

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This time of year the streets are pretty empty, but that makes for better traveling sometimes. Having the place to yourself is not so bad.

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Lake Atitlan

The road into Panajachel is not so much a road as potholes with patches in between. Sometimes just potholes. Endeavouring wannabe gangster children fill the holes and then demand money, or simply hold up a road trying to get some change out of you. To bad little dudes, we are bigger and badder than you, and you don’t have guns!

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Besides this, its beautiful and the views are pretty great.

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We’re going to split this entry into three parts, because each city around the lake has a completely different personality. There are three defining features we will point out in each town: Expat community, activities, and food.


 

Panajechal

This is the first point of entry for many, so really resembles a ruff and tumble frontier town. Although, not really ruff or tumble. The accommodations in town (for overlanders), are pretty expensive as well. We negotiated down for 2 nights and still paid too much (200Q 1st night, 150 Q second). Also, beware of the size of streets which can quickly go from two lanes to one way pedestrian size without you really noticing you are going to get stuck. Oops!

The expat community in town is entrenched. It seems to be where people first settled, and then got a little weird. Many seem to be running from some former criminal past, maybe a felony back home? Joe, a friend who lured us into his mosquito filled bar and then proceeded to talk near gibberish to us while spraying us with his homemade mosquito repellent (brown and sticky, maybe tobacco related)…. Really proved to us both how crazy the locals can be but also how genuine. Whatever Joe was on, we don’t want it, but he gave us some really good intel on “love, love love, love, love; Rituals with shit-sodomy necromancy, cannibalism, human sacrifice, rituals with blood, spiritual or alien contact, magic fallen angels, mixing of alien and human genes, and age old lies”

No we didn’t just have a stroke, we are giving you a little info from Joe’s pamphlet.

Things to do sort of align with food, because one of the primary things to do is wander around and eat the street food. We ate nearly 10 tacos in one day. Also Mexican corn on the cob and some tostadas. We sat down to dinner at a street stall and had some seriously delicious home cooked food in the company of regional travelers who complimented us on our Spanish. HA!

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Another thing is shopping, this is where all the handicrafts go to be sold around the lake, so don’t wait for other towns.. this is where you are going to find all the trinkets you littler heart desires. We, being broke, pretty much bought nothing.

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San Marcos

Although only a 20 minute boat ride away was really a 3 hour drive away on seriously striking mountain roads. The switchbacks into the lake really should be appreciated on a chicken bus howevr, because they literally cannot make the switchbacks without a 16 point turn each time. Our truck wasn’t that much better.

The town is notoriously hippy. And although I thought the guidebook was joking, we really did hear people talk about life forces, energy vortexes and chakras when we were there. The town center is all a labyrinth of walkways between healing centers, yoga studios and meditation intensives. These were all out of our budget, San Marcos is not really for the budget savvy, unless of course the universe provided it.

We stayed at a hostel with really great people and scenery, however we were not pleased with the price (and the  2 for 3 night sale that was not applicable because we didn’t ask for it on the first night….excuse me we didn’t even know about it!). Also, the dogs and screaming out of control children really made us feel like grumps until we heard everyone else complaining about it. Seriously, they were awful.

But nevertheless, we explored the town. Brett finally forced Jessica into a cliff jump (he pep talked me for nearly an hour, it was brutal), and we bought some of Keith’s famous cacao.

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The expats here are all retired hippies. Maybe they just bought in when the prices were lower, and the lake was lower… because now the lake is rising and silly foreigners are losing their properties to the rise of the lake. The things to do are aligning your chakra, yoga and ceremonial cacao experiences… which we did not do. The food, gringo oriented and obviously organic. Expensive.


 

San Pedro

Last city! Took us a bit to find reasonable truck accommodation, because there is a fair coming to town and ALL THE STREETS ARE BLOCKED OFF. Damn. But we did, and although admittedly a little grungy, the price was right, the hosts oh-so-sweet and the grounds lovely. The grunge didn’t even bother us. The electrifying shower was only slightly off-putting.

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Since we were both eating for two thanks to our parasite issue, we ate a lot. Just really anything we could get our hands on. If you see someone setting up tables in a street corner, wait. Seriously just wait for the best tortas, empanadas or tostadas you’ve ever had. And the cheapest food you’ll find. Also, we will mention that tequila shots & cuba libres were 5Q.   Danger zone!

Here is the town’s volcanic namesake.

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The expats in San Pedro are more discrete, but the backpackers are partiers. The music is loud and not always good. Besides wander around a bit, there isn’t much to do besides drink and eat. We did however stumble on a women’s weavers cooperative and learned SO much about the process. From picking the cotton to the finished scarf…. So much work goes into a product. We promise we will never barter for hand woven anything ever again.

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Also, Taco’s mom lives here.

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And just like that, we were out!

Quick and Dirty

It is with great trepidation that we decided to skip Honduras and El Salvador this time around. Not only are we a little strapped for time (thanks Panama and Pablo), we are trying to plan longer periods at fewer destinations in order to enjoy each location more. Oh, and our familiars seemed terrified of both these countries. The more we read on the internet, the more we also were terrified. Gangs! Extortion! Road Blocks! Robberies… really scary stuff online.

However, internet, you were wrong. These countries and the borders seemed great, even if we were only in Honduras for 4 hours it was smooth sailing for us. Literally no issues as we crossed from Nicaragua into Honduras and then into El Salvador in the same day. BAM!

In Honduras we had armed ourselves with the warning triangles and fire extinguisher as we had heard police checkpoints love to extort tourists for missing these items… but nearly every police checkpoint was abandoned and the military just waved us through. Maybe it was a holiday? Maybe it was just our lucky day?

In anycase Honduras has great Pollo Frito, and great beers.

IMG_20160620_120022The second border, into El Salvador, wasn’t exactly the swiftest border crossing, but honestly it was smooth, had no lines or ‘fixers’. It was just a bit convoluted and as we decided to cross with only a 24 hr permit rather then something more touristy we therefore ended up with the transport trucks.

It was a hot in that line up.

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In El Salvador, we drove as far as we could into the country but didn’t make our goal. It was getting dark, and we were getting nervous. FYI, for anyone reading this that might be trying to drive through El Salvador there are literally no options for hotels between San Miguel and San Vicente. Don’t even try going into San Vicente….we tried, literally no hotels in the town. Thankfully, a few options came up and they were all of the Auto-Hotel Variety. $10 USD for 3 hours if you know what I’m saying. Our room had a disco ball, a scene from New York pasted to the wall, and a toilet paper dispenser over the bed. Oh, and a mirror on the other side of the bed. Sexy. Sorry no pictures… 😉

And then, thats it! We left. Catch ya on the flip side El Salvador and Honduras.

On to the next one.

Nicaragua: City Edition

Granada
June 9-10

In the short span of 3 days we managed to drive through and stay in the three major city destinations within Nicaragua. Granada, Managua, Leon. BAM.

Granada, although beautiful and with excellent 2×1 Mojitos (4 mojitos for $5 USD), was a bit seedy around the edges at night. The series of 4-5 hostels we toured before making a rough decision were also very disappointing. Our hostel didn’t have a single dish in the communal kitchen, had only clogged toilets, and its workers stayed up all night coked out and partying in the hostel making sure neither of us slept. Left them a really great review the next morning!

Hot Tip: Secure parking is available at the Bomberos (fire station). Roughly $2.5 USD per night, as a donation.

Despite the terrible sleep, we made a MAJOR discovery at the market the next morning. Nicaraguan smoked cheeses. After months of only Queso Blanco (bland country cheese) throughout Colombia and Central America, we probably ate 2 lbs of cheese in 24 hours. The texture is firm and bubbly like an areo bar. The flavor varies from gentle to extreme smokyness. 2 lbs of cheese cost us under $4 USD. The market in Granada is a great place to stock up on fruit, veg and cheese. This haul cost us under $10 (including cheese and a breakfast each).

Side note, eggs come rolling around loose in bags not cartons.

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The Boom & Jiquilillo
June 10-11

Once again, second year in a row, our surf dreams went unfulfilled in Nicaragua. Another swell had come in, making what we imagine would be a perfect beach break into a body breaker. To be clear, they were beautiful barrels going off next to “The Boom”, but they were also 1-2meters. Which in our terms is still a bit problematic.  The Boom itself was also just absolutely terrifying at that level. Brett attempted the smaller sets, but they were still extremely advanced waves and after a an hour or so time to go.

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The limited and unsafe camping options compounded with the swell meant we traveled north to Jiquilillo to see if we could find something more manageable. However, that far North in Nicaragua also means little to no infrastructure for tourism or for locals. Signs started appearing stating “This bridge donated by Japan” or “Electric Grid developed by Canada”. The surf towns, being out of season, were also absolutely abandoned. Ghost towns.

Sigh. One day we will surf you Nica!

Leon
June 11-13

This is a city we can get behind! Beautiful colonial architecture without the same seedy feel we had in Granada. Hostel recommendation Hostel Guardabarranco, quiet and half the price of the rest on the same street. We could park right in front.

Hot Tip: semi secure parking available on the main hostel street (It has BigFoot Hostel, Via Via Etc). The businesses pay for a security guard to patrol at night. You can tip the guy to watch your car especially, negotiate price in advance as we were not told a tip was required until afterwards.

If you are ever in need of cheap, second hand clothing, Nicaragua apparently is the place. Literally tons of the stuff are shipped her from the states, some of which are still tagged and must have been sold for pennies on their original cost. In leon, the shops are literally everywhere and have excellent “names”.

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The market here also has cheese. We ate more cheese.

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Leon’s church game is on point. Each one better then the last.

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During this period, we also used our time to really dig into border crossing research and the best plan of attack for Honduras & El Salvador, countries which put fears into the hearts of our mothers.

Brett’s not scurred’

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Nicaraguan Eruption

San Juan Del Sur
June 5-8, 2016

Crossing the Nicaraguan border only 24 hours after the Panama border was not originally on the books, but we did what we had to to get this overlanding underway. See our notes for instructions on the sometimes crazy other times convoluted crossing.

In any case, arrived into San Juan Del Sur safe and sound, kitty in hand, and let out a sigh of relief. We said out final goodbyes to our friend Chris (who had started traveling with us nearly 3 weeks before and been very, very patient with the entire paperwork process) and began celebrating.

Celebrate through a good bottle of whiskey, and a bite to the face.

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San Juan Del Sur is definitely gringo overridden. A bit of a backpacker haven for those looking for a taste of home. For example, caesars at the Loose Moose which we sampled. If we are honest, the bar scene there is quite gross (ie. white girl wasted, “Sunday Funday” and ladies drink free pubcrawls). We were here last year, but prices seem to have already increased. Most hostels now only have private rooms for $35 + (low season) whereas last year they were at least $10 cheaper (in high season).

We did find a gem of a host however, a few blocks from the beach. Her name was Elizabeth, she ran Hostel Elizabeth which was essentially an ancient family home that had 3 floors added on for guests. The engineering of these floors was creative at best. The private rooms/shared bathroom had a breeze (very important) and views over the entire city.

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$20 USD. Also, she had a STUNNING full apartment for rent for $30 USD a night. Don’t be put off by the bottom floor, which is a dreary and inhabited by two giant rabbits…

Foreshadow: Our kitty loved it there.

Ometepe
June 8 -10, 2016

Ometepe is breathtaking. Also, an overlanding paradise filled with countless free camping possibilities. Ferry there was a bit pricey with the truck & 2x passengers (approx $30 USD), and the ferry wranglers really wedge you into your parking space with increasing aggression, however the ferry on a calm day is a great way to get lead up to a few days (or a lifetime) on the volcanos.

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Ometepe was quite sweaty, but at least now we are acclimatized. Thankfully we were able to cool off in Agua de Ojo, a volcano fed crystal clear watering hole with a pretty cute dude in it.

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The first night we camped on a deserted beach nestled under Volcan Conception. Brett built a romantic fire on a small island, and we spent the night with the kitty on the island watching a lightening storm. Kitty fell asleep face down on the island. Must have been a long day playing on her first beach. She learned to jump that day.

Then, while sleeping, we experienced the lightening storm up close and personal. Our newly improved tarp system held up great.

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On the opposite, more rugged and obviously poorer side of the Volcan Maderas, we hiked to the San Ramon Cascada. Hot Tip: the reserve will let you camp across the road on the pier for free, use their bathrooms and wifi as well, 24 hour security. Waterfall was $3 USD. Another Hot Tip: Hiking to the waterfall is awfully humid. Within 2 minutes of starting we were soaked due only to sweaty humidity, not due to the state of our physical ability. But the 4 hour hike is %100 percent worth it for the incredible waterfall secreted away at the top. Don’t give up like poorly dressed flip flop girl or jean woman!

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Second night, second incredible lightening storm over the lake. Sunset was awful.

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We finally also admitted to ourselves that perhaps trying to bring Skinny Scratchy all the way back into Canada would not only compromise our mission, but also potentially not be great for kitty. Our hot truck is only going to get hotter, and we can not always guarantee where we will be staying and the kitty safety factor. Also the fact that she only sleeps on my head makes a full nights rest really difficult. We made the difficult decision to return to Hostel Elizabeth, to grandmother Elizabeth and let her become a kitten mom. She had originally offered, however we were not quite ready to part ways with our rescue.

Goodbye Skinny Scratchy. Its been a wild ride rescuing you from certain death in a dog filled garbage pit on the Panamericana. We will forever miss you and your tiny little face, and the way you chase butterflies, and dig a million tiny holes then try to poop in each one of them on the beaches.

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Northbound-Borders Collection: Nicaragua to Honduras

Given our shortened timeframe, and the warnings by many about traveling Honduras/El Salvador we decided to skip them this time. We know that many, many people have traveled safely into the beauty of these countries, but decided that we would wait until next trip to really explore them.

We were able to travel between Leon Nicaragua, to San Vincent, El Salvador in 12 hours (Leave 5:15AM, Arrival before dark 5PM). We would recommend stopping somewhere immediately after the border though, because after San Miguel there are few towns and fewer hotels. We stayed at a Auto-Motel (*wink wink 3 hours for 10 $).


Borders : Nicaragua to Honduras

When: June 14, 2016

Where: Guasuale

Time Frame: 1.5 hours (early, early morning 7AM)

Process:

  • Drive up to the border checkpoint, they will check your passport and give you a Customs Declaration to fill out.
  • Park on the left in front of the border office, get your passports checked (no stamps) at the exit side of immigration. He will instruct you to pay 45C (or alternately a terrible USD ripoff rate) for exit fee. Pay on the opposite side of the office. **If you do not have exact change, the bank is in the same building and can make it for you.
  • Keep exit receipts!
  • Once processed, return to your vehicle and find a customs official wondering around to inspect your truck. Again, picture someone dressed for business-casual day at the office. He will sign the back of the customs declaration form for you. You will then need to have a customs official sign the back of your Vehicle Import Document (originally received on entry in Nicaragua). Is this can be the same official or a different one, we are not sure. Both were wandering around the same area.
  • Proceed back to the immigration office, down the hallway from the cashier whom you paid the exit fee too.
  • Customs will process you.
  • Documents Required (no copies):
    • Passport
    • License
    • Registration
    • Vehicle Import Form(signed by customs officer)
    • Customs declaration (signed by customs officer)
  • No exit stamp from Nicaragua
  • Drive through to Honduras (over the bridge).
  • Park on the left side of the road, in front of the Border Offices.
  • Get an entry stamp for Honduras. $3 USD, receipt given.

***You’ll also need to have exact change. No banks in this neighbourhood, but they accept Lempiras or USD. Moneychangers can charge you a fee for change. 

  • Walk through the building to the other side. You will need to enter into the offices (just ask the Transito booths for permission). Someone will escort you to an office, to import your vehicle.
  • Vehicle import is $13 USD.
  • Documents Required (2x copies needed of everything):
    • Passport
    • License
    • Registration
    • Passport Entry stamp
  • No Insurance required (we did not ask about prices since we are only going to be in Honduras for a few hours).
  • You will receive 2 receipts: a receipt for the transaction and for the import itself (a rainbow receipt, hang on to this)

***Copy office located across the large tractor-trailer parking lot from the customs side of the building. We recommend checking it out if only for the lewd pedophile poster and ancient beast of a typewriter.

  • On leaving the border zone, again you will be checked by an official to make sure you have everything. They’ll kindly inform you if you need anything else, which we did (the rainbow receipt).

Notes:

  • We were warned by everyone about this border. We were warned about helpers jumping on your car, running after you, yelling at you. We were warned about scams from the officials and about sketchy transactions. We were 100% surprised to find this the easiest border of all time. No helpers to be found, no scams, happy officials, and even some that spoke english.
  • One of the warnings is of the police checkpoint in Honduras, immediately after the border. Apparently they typically extort people for not having warning triangles, fire extinguisher which are required in the country. We stocked up in Leon (check out the SINSA hardware store on the way out of town) in preparation.  However, there were far more police pylons then police at the countless checkpoints from border to border.  The one time we were stopped, he simply asked where we were from. We were also waved through both military checkpoints. Success!

 

 

 

Northward-Bound Borders Collection: Costa Rica to Nicaragua

Borders : Costa Rica to Nicaragua

When: June 6, 2016

Where: Penas Blancas

Time Frame: 2.5hrs (mid afternoon)

Process:

  • Pay exit fee at Costa Rican border. To the right of the road, down a small embankment. Looks unofficial, but they gave a receipt. $7 USD.
  • Off the main street, to the right, get your exit stamp at immigration. They need to see your exit fee receipt.
  • Costa Rican Customs Office is located in a strange location in relation to immigration. Drive towards North towards Nicaragua, past the immigration offices, then turn around and head in the opposite direction back into Costa Rica. The customs offices are located to the right; you cannot miss it, looks like a parking lot for semi trailers with no building visible. Drive to the southern end.
  • Customs office will cancel your importation, but needs one copy of the Importation form. No charge, and copy shop located nearby.
  • Documents required:
    • Passport
    • License
    • Vehicle Registration.
    • Costa Rican Vehicle Import Form (received when you entered the country) + 1 Copy
  • Now you are ready for Nicaragua….. and boy you better get ready for the craziest border crossing yet.
  • Loop back around as if you were starting the process again, but head all the way across into Nicaragua this time. **Nicaragua has relocated their Border offices compared to 2015 (right hand side of the road). They are now located on the left hand side of the road.
  • Park in the parking lot to the south of the building. Helpers, children and maybe baby ducks, will swarm you. You do not need them, politely decline their services. You can do it.
  • Receive a Vehicle Inspection Form, from a customs officer who will be wandering around the lot. Should look like an official, but on business casual day. He will fill out a small customs form, including various items you are carrying (example: Surfboards, ropas, “casa” by which he meant our roof top tent). He did not check anything besides our license plate, and opened the back door but did not need us to open the drawers.
    • You can pay him off if you want so he does a shitty inspection, but if you have nothing to hide… why waste the money. We did pay a helper $5 USD for this service, but seriously do not think it was necessary.
  • Take the Vehicle Inspection Form to a Police officer who should also be wandering around the parking lot. He will thankfully look more official, and will inspect the vehicle also. He needs to sign the customs form for you.
  • Pay for Nicaraguan insurance (unofficial looking tent to the left of the immigration office). $12 USD
  • Enter immigration office, receive exit stamp. Exit fee $12 USD
  • Walk through the immigration office into a big blank room with many tables and only one grumpy lady. We honestly have no idea what she does, besides take a dinosaurs age to enter and reenter your information.
  • Documents needed (no copies needed):
    • Passport
    • License
    • Registration
    • Vehicle Inspection Form
  • However grumpy she is, she is necessary. Once she approves you in her voodoo computer system, you can exit.
  • When you are driving out of the border zone, there will be someone checking to ensure you have all the correct clearances. If you are missing anything, never fear! He will kindly redirect you.
  • Pets: Customs noticed out cat, but completely ignored her. No documents needed. We did not declare her.

Notes:

  • This Border is literally the craziest to date, thanks mostly in part to the helpers rushing you all the time. They are persistent.
  • This crossing has the most steps out of all the borders so far but we have found it really helpful to simply ask at each official step “What is the next step” Or  “A donde vamos  despues?” Officials will always direct you.
  • The Police checkpoint is located before the turn off for San Juan Del Sur. They only needed to see our passport.