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.

 

Northward-Bound Borders Collection: Panama to Costa Rica

Since we have been frustrated by the lack of information available for Overlanders traveling North, we decided to put together the Northward-Bound Borders Collection. The border information we have been relying on is for those going south, meaning we are trying to piece together information from various sources on the procedures going against the grain. It’s a lot of note taking, a lot of investigation, and really annoying. We appreciate all the monumental efforts of those before us (Overlandwiki, 30forthirty, Drive the Americas) but it doesn’t always apply to us.

So Northbound travelers – here you go – please enjoy our step-by-step process for overlanding borders the opposite direction.


Borders Collection: Panama to Costa Rica

When: June 5th, 2016

Where: Paso Canoas

Time Frame: 3 hours (mid afternoon)

Process:

**Warning** since we had so many problems on the Panama side, we can only advise on the process starting afresh on the Costa Rican side. We cannot offer any real advise for the Panama portion.

  • Drive through the Panama immigration/customs building once processed. Cross the main street immediately outside the border building and you will see a Costa Rican Border Office to your right about 200 meters down the road.
  • Request a Customs Declaration Form at an immigration booth. Immigration is located on the Northern side of the building. Complete the form and hand it in at immigration for a passport stamp.
  • Proceed to customs, located on the southern side of the building (other side from immigration). You will need to go inside and fill out the appropriate temporary vehicle import form.
    • Documents Needed (no copies required):
      • Passport
      • License
      • Vehicle Registration
    • A Customs Officer will come outside with you and inspect your vehicle. They did not check anything besides our license plate, and opened the back door but did not need us to open the back drawers.
    • Insurance is located back beside immigration on the Northern side. 90 days of coverage cost $37USD. It does not get refunded if you leave before hand.
    • No exit fees for Panama.
    • No entry fees for Costa Rica.

Pets: Customs noticed out cat, but completely ignored her. No documents needed. We did not declare her.


Additional Notes:

  • Panama side of the border is much more chaotic. Quite a few helpers who are very pushy. They can be helpful if you need assistance with your paperwork in Panama. They seem to work in cahoots with the border officials who often call them over for translation. Negotiate price ahead of time.
  • Although overwhelming at first, the general lay out of the border is in a straight line. When being processed in Panama, enter the building with your vehicle but do not drive entirely through as you’d technically be crossing into Costa Rica. Park somewhere along the offices. Someone will direct you if you are in the way.
  • Police checkpoint located within 20 km of the border. They needed to see our passports and our registration, and our vehicle import form.
  • Fill up on fuel before leaving Panama. Costa Rica is Fucking Pricey.

 

 

 

First Steps into Costa Rica

It seems strange to think that our overlanding has begun. It was so long in the making: a year of planning and saving; months of research; months of paperwork and delays in Panama….. And then suddenly and to be honest, very unexpectedly, we were in Costa Rica.

We didn’t say anything in the truck for the first 30 minutes. It was too surreal.

We drove to Dominicalito, an old surfing haunt of ours (good beginner waves on a high tide by the way) and set up camp. By the way, its also free although I would not leave your vehicle for the day, as with many surfer spots we think thief is possible.

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For the first time in months we feasted on a giant salad, and did not forget to celebrate by the box load of Clos (“Its not wine, but its Clos”).

That night our tent and patience really were tested. There was a torrential downpour. BUCKETS. And a very unhappy kitty in our increasingly wet tent. She politely decided to shit the bed at 2AM. Thank god she is so cute.

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And then, in the morning, we were off!

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Peace Costa Rica! You are beautiful, but we’ve seen you before and you are much to pricey for our now reduced pockets. We’ve got bigger and more exotic (in our minds) fish to fry north of you.

Panama Papers & the Final Crossing

If you want to hear the full story  in all its gory details of our border crossing, including 3 attempts over 24 hours on two different coasts… we really encourage you to click to button on the right “Buy us a Beer”.  Its worth it for the story alone and we promise to spend only a small percentage of it on drinking our paperwork nightmare away, the rest will go towards fuel and food.

The export paperwork took 1.5 months longer then expected, and astronomically more then we expected. Did we mention we also bought a new engine? Although we stayed for free (in exchange for work), our beer budget, (although originally studious) is completely blown.  So… feel sorry for us and let us drink away the panama papers!


Normally we are budget conscious. We made a solid plan, and were sticking to it, until the paperwork happened and the engine blew up. We originally estimated 1 month to find a truck, buy a truck and to at least initiate the export process. It took nearly 2.5 months all said and done.

According to all the available information, export paperwork requires many many approvals to legally export the country: Registro Unico – Vehicle registration, DIJ – Security clearance confirming it wasn’t stolen; Certificacion corta (municipio):Paz y Salvo – Confirmation there are not tickets or liens against the vehicle; Muncipal approval – from the municipality of registration; Adunas – customs clearance, etc etc etc.

Its a complicated mess of bureaucracy that is difficult for even the Panamanian to navigate. As non-super-spanish speakers in a foreign land it was nearly impossible. So we took everyone’s advise and hired someone. Prices originally went to over $1500 for a lawyer whom we obviously rejected. We found someone online to assist us through craigslist at a much better price. This was good.

The rollercoaster of emotional ups and many downs (bottomless at times), we faced could have broken us. But in the end it made us stronger individually, as a couple, and mentally.

Although, honestly, we encountered real bad news at least ever 4 days over the course of 45 days… thats a lot of negatively to really go through. So we’ve summarized the best of the worst of the problems for you here:

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1 – Engine replacement and 1st set of export paperwork happening at the same time. On the last day of paperwork, when taking the truck to the security clearance, our paperwork fixer found out we had replaced the engine… instantly negating ALL THE PAPERWORK TO DATE. Our Engine serial number had changed, thus canceling all our paperwork which indicated the old number. This was 2 weeks in, and one full set of document/labour costs in.

2 – There was a miscommunication about the price of the new engine. Our mechanics gave us a new engine labour free in record time, but we still did not expect that cost and due to a language barrier mis-interpreted the price by $500USD.

3 – A new engine has to be registered (yes more paperwork) in various places, including the municipality.  After spending $20 to fill out a special form between us and the engine seller (a bill of sale essentially), and registering it officially, we found out the seller/importer hadn’t registered it in the first place. Meaning we couldn’t re-register it…. this lead to complications and about a weeks delay.

4 – There were continuous delays in the second set of export paperwork, because we could not just register a new number or correct the old paperwork. We had to start a fresh once our engine SIN was confirmed.  Every few days a government office, official, courier, etc would basically not efficiently do their job and forget to process our paperwork. Our deadlines kept being blown. Typically it should take approximately 7-10 business days. This second set took 3 weeks.

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5 – The border denied our first 2 attempts to cross with all our official paperwork. Again, “Buy Us a Beer” we’ll go into that much more deeply… but for now it was some of the lowest points of our life. After 1.5 months of additional problems in Panama, we were pretty much planning to either move permanently to Panama or burn our vehicle and collect the insurance. It was like we were held hostage in foreign lands, being trapped by a truck and by paperwork. How do you leave a country in these circumstances?

With all this in mind, here are some rules:

1 – Do not pay for anything up front. We recommend a lawyer, a one time fee to someone who has done it before and recommended by someone you trust.

2 – Have patience. UNLIMITED PATIENCE.

3 – Understand that Panama wants to make it essentially impossible to export. As a Panamanian with a vehicle, you actually need to go through this entire process (except the export tax) to drive your vehicle to Costa Rica for the weekend on holiday. To export, you need to do exactly the same paperwork plus export approval (confirming you pay taxes). As a non-resident your only option is final export. You cannot leave the country with a Panama vehicle legally without final export paperwork. You must export.

4 – The vehicle selection in Panama requires patience, a good understanding of mechanics, and a keen eye. There are awesome vehicles driving everywhere, but never judge a book by its cover in Panama. Because the covers are real nice, but the insides are garbage.


Moral of the story is we learned our lesson. We won’t ever buy a truck again in Panama. We promise! We are extremely thankful however that our time in Panama was extended, if only for the fact that we got to experience so many parts of the country that we would have ignored if the paperwork had gone smoothly. Panama is wildly beautiful. The pound-per-pound impact the country has in terms of beaches, jungle, mountains, animals, people really beats a lot of more popular tourist destinations.

Although we may now never be allowed back, we are so grateful for our experiences in this lush and vivid place.

 

(n) when you get to where you were intending to go, but forget why you were going in the first place