Into Costa Rica
One of the backpackers from Isla Ometepe, Mike, is heading south with basically the same plan as me, so he jumps in the Jeep and we make our way to the border crossing at Peñas Blancas. I’ve been warned by many different people this is an insane border to bring a vehicle across, so I’m ready for anything.
We drive past a huge line of parked trucks that stretches for a few kilometers and stop at a small shack to pay $1 USD for an official exit stamp from Nicaragua. Ten meters away we drive to another shack where the guard gives me a little scrap of paper with the license plate of the Jeep and the date written on the front, then just points at the next building. Pulling in here is where the real chaos begins – there are cars, busses and trucks all over the place, hundreds of people milling about and about fifty guys yelling at me to purchase their assistance. I’ve learnt the trick with these guys is to pretend you are not interested then listen to them while they tell you the next step in the process. When they’ve finished blabbing I politely say “No thanks” and move along. Whenever I’m pondering the next step, another helper materializes, yells the answer at me and I move along without paying a cent.
I find a customs officer wandering around and give him the little scrap of paper. He glances at the Jeep, scribbles his name and walks away to repeat the process for someone else. Next is a policeman who does exactly the same thing, without even seeing the Jeep. I move inside and stand in a line with about ten local guys who are apparently trying to achieve a similar goal. I strike up a conversation with one guy who assures me I’m in the right place and have thus far jumped through the correct hoops in the correct order. I think he’s impressed.
After about twenty minutes of waiting it becomes obvious that waiting in line is not an important concept here, with people pushing in and out of line all over the place. My new friend sees an opening and together we eagerly get to the front of a newly-opened window, shoving our paperwork through. Here, my very official paperwork for the Jeep thrown on a pile and I get a new scribble and even a stamp on my paper scrap, and am pointed to the next line across. The same process is repeated, a scribble and a stamp.
As far as I can tell, the process for the Jeep is complete and now Mike and I have to deal with ourselves. Apparently a couple of tour busses have just pulled in so we wait about 45 minutes in line, fill out a tourist card and pay $2 USD to finally have permission to exit Nicaragua. I still have no idea if my scrap of paper is complete and can’t believe when the border guard barely glances at it before waiving up through. Gotta love bureaucracy.
After all that, we have only left Nicaragua, and must now enter Costa Rica.
Fumigation is first up and I’m surprised when the guy waves me right in without paying. I hope I don’t need a receipt for that later. We park in front of the main immigration building and stand in another huge line to get ourselves into the country. 45 minutes and another tourist card later we are rewarded with a little stamp in our passports. In the room adjacent I pay $15 USD for mandatory car insurance and get a photocopy of my new passport stamp and policy. Just over the road I hand over my paperwork including copies of the registration (title), my passport and drivers license which are all recorded on a piece of paper. A policeman does a cursory inspection of the Jeep and contents, before giving directions to the next building we must go to.
During this whole process a German guy riding a motorbike has been one step behind me, so we’ve been chatting and helping each other out. At this point his debit card doesn’t work and he doesn’t have enough money to purchase insurance, leaving him literally stranded in no mans land between the two countries. With a huge grin I give him $20 and completely change the color of his day. He’s adamant we should stick together until we find a working ATM so he can pay me back, but I’m not fazed at all.
I feel confident that someone will do the same for me if it ever comes to that.
A short drive away I stand in line at a non-descript white building, apparently the last hurdle for the day. Here, all the paperwork I’ve accumulated so far is taken away, typed up and given back to me in the form of a formal-looking document allowing three months entry.
The now common final guards have a look over everything and wave us through into Costa Rica, country number nine…