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Thread: On the road . . . again?

  1. #1
    Viejo del Foro Daddy-YO's Avatar
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    Default On the road . . . again?

    Driving to Nicaragua from Philly may seem to some like failing a test of sanity. It wasn't a stunt. It was my fourth time. Still it's a barely rational undertaking. The last time, two years ago, I swore never again. Certainly no money was saved, compared to flying. (Avoiding the insult of having your body scanned to nakedness by a grinning Homeland stranger is little consolation.)

    I'm a frugal person by nature, OK, a tight wad. Therein lay part of the reason why I chose Nicaragua to live half the year. (Dollars/pesos/shekels go further.) My Nica wife is, of course, the principal reason why. She has very effectively untightened my wad. (It's not loose ... not yet ... though I'm still reeling from all spent on this trip.) My sugar plum had never visited Mexico, nor Guatemala, and knew little of dear USA. She found quiet, well-kept US suburban home life boring (mostly missing her family) until she discovered the mall. She's a tireless power-shopper digging through racks for end-of-season bargains. So ... we also had a ton of clothes for all and odds & ends to haul Nica-ward. Thus ends my weak defense of our ‘rational’ motives for driving to Nicaragua. I drove a Toyota Tacoma pick-up with a camper top stuffed full.

    The stats: overall 4,146 miles in 24 days;
    from Philly to Brownsville, Texas, 2,008 miles in 5 days;
    through Mexico, 1,322 miles = 2115 km in 11 days;
    and 1,306 km and 7 nights in Central America to León, jodido.

    My dear wife got an insignificant sampling of the USA seen at 70 mph on interstate highways. A Texas Roadhouse (yes, they serve ‘roadkill’) impressed her, as did the cleanliness & amenities of the motels. (One notable exception caused us to avoid those managed by Indian families.) The highlight of that stretch for me was watching the international space station cross the Louisiana sky with a gentleman in Lafayette.

    Matamoros, Mexico, was a nightmare. We got caught between Immigration & Customs when the gal with Migracion classified us as ‘in transit‘, because we admitted heading to Nicaragua. I should have insisted on tourist visas. After a couple hours back & forth, they let us go, classifying our load as ‘personal effects’ (no charge) with only a cursory glance at the awful pile, but quizzing us extensively. Each visa cost 262 pesos (or $24, a screw) cash only. Customs charge me 444 pesos on my credit card. (The exchange rate was ca. 12.3 p/$.) In Matamoros I got nailed twice by traffic cops in vehicles. Once you cross the border it’s Napoleonic law. They confiscate your driver’s license. The first pair said I ran a red light. It was false, but that mattered little. It’s a game for them, they saw my foreign plates, and knew they could take a bite of my wallet, by settling it then & there. All I had left after the border was 200 pesos; they took it all. Trembling with caution I drove the main highway out of town slowly, search for an ATM. Everything passed me on the boulevard, a six-lane road divided by concrete with shrubs. Two patrolmen in a new van pulled me over, charging me with speeding through a school zone. Whaaaaaaaa?
    Those Mexican police really enjoyed playing with me. Passers-by laughed. I told them I was out of pesos. One told me the fine he had to pay in the US for speeding through a school zone was hundreds of dollars. They took $30 (after lengthy bargaining) from me and escorted me to an ATM a ways from the main highway, in an all dusty-dirt narrow street neighborhood. (I suspected the worst, but they carried my papers. Nothing happened.) They escorted me back. Their parting words were to watch out for thieves. OK. sure. Our first night we stayed in Ciudad Victoria, in pleasant comfort. I was unable to find an ATM in Mexico that didn’t charge a fee for issuing pesos. The lowest I found was 23p or some $2.

    The only hotel we spent two nights in was Hotel Canadian on Playa Esmeralda south of the Tajin ruins, north of Veracruz. A suite for the price of a room with 3 large, immaculate pools Greek columns & statuary sprinkled about, and seemingly no other guests. Plenty of working staff kept all a’ sparkle. The restaurant hung over the Gulf. The guys in new, pressed uniforms with conspicuous Mexican flag patches that ran the place seemed like narco-thugs. They never smiled. The only one who appeared ‘Canadian’, being too tall & pale, neatly dressed in civilian clothes, behave liked the ghost in Hamlet, seen & unseen, cryptically present, but mentally elsewhere. By the by, none of the violence of the Drug War, so frequently in the news was visible to us. All seemed normal, except for the occasional army checkpoints, with their heavy arms & sandbag shelters. We passed through those without a hitch.

    In Alvarado, a shrimping town south of Veracruz, I got screwed, well, my car’s tire did, while parked in a central hotel’s lot looking at a room (shabby & overpriced). I mistakenly asked to leave the car there while we looked around. Luckily my sweetheart noticed it low when we returned; bending close she heard it hissing. Inspecting it I found the new screw-nail (pointed for hammer start). As upset as I was I couldn’t accuse anyone, cause it might have been one of those angel-faced brats hanging around the place. I unpacked the foot-operated tire pump and learned where the only place in town that repairs flats was. As I pumped, a circus passed by. The preview show turned the corner we were stuck on. Monkeys, baboons, birds, and plenty of lions & tigers, large cages towed on trailers, two with tanned, strong men in trunks standing on top, flexing muscles. With the twilight it was all very surreal. Traffic was a hassle with the circus, but asking frequently, we found the one young black man who repair all flats. He pulled it off the rim, sanded & patched the hole on the inside, and put it back on the car for 30 pesos (less than $2.50) I gave him a big tip, but he clearly needs a manager, or maybe that’s his problem. We had visited every hotel in town - all third rate. The best-looking place was an auto-motel, a place town prostitutes would take favored clients, or where young couples (many arrived in taxis) might pluck forbidden fruit. We stayed in the half that called itself an auto-hotel. Critically important we had our own sheets & pillows, though I spent a half hour fixing the window so it was secure. We traveled only during daylight, so, I guess you could say, we got caught in Alvarado’s nets.

    A list of all the places visited, hotels & prices will be added if requested.

    We crossed into Guatemala at La Mesilla. The border near Tapachula, Mexico, may be more convenient for Pan American highway traffic, but it’s a huge hassle because they’re so busy. Beside the mountains of the state of Chiapas and that region of Guatemala are beautiful. Entering at La Mesilla was a smooth & pleasant experience. As I recall there was no charge for the CA-4 tourist visa (allowed 90 days in the 4 Central American countries before exiting to Costa Rica, or Mexico) nor for Guatemala. Registering the pick-up with customs, its permit cost 40 Quetzals, no dollars accepted. At an ATM Q8.0 = $1. The only bank is on the other side of the bridge. I was at the mercy of the money-changers; the best they gave was Q6/$. A small loss. The ATMs there, strangely named B7s or somesuch, gave exactly Q8/$, no fee. We only stayed 3 days in Guatemala cause mi señora started getting homesick, or maybe it was PMS. What do I know?

    The coastal Pan Am through El Salvador is the most direct route and one of the most beautiful drives, overlooking the Pacific coast, tunneling through some 5-7 mountains. Also El Salvador has the best border etiquette by far, helpful & courteous, and no fees. La Libertad with its ‘malecon’ was a pleasant midpoint. San Miguel was a welcome surprise stop. It’s big, new mall delighted the little woman and the Comfort Inn had a very affordable weekend special going. It’s washer & dryer for guests helped, a lot.

    The border crossing into Honduras must surely qualify for a position on one of the inner circles of Dante’s Inferno. A plague of ‘tramitadores’ (licensed helpers needed to explain steps & find the bureaucrats who must fill & sign the necessary forms) descend on one miles from the actual border. I don’t want to be unkind here, but these characters are difficult to deal with, and it’s near impossible to pass without their help. They say they only work for tips, which they’re legal bound to say, but they expect good pay, and they can usually extract it. I insisted one tell me what he expects, $1-2, he said, then I gave him $5 after I did much of the leg work, and he still acted like I assaulted his mother. (He tried to weasel me into some scheme that he had to pay the agent under the table, but I wasn’t buying his line.) The customs building at Amatillo has a huge hole in the roof. Feather waft out of it with the breeze like misplaced snow. Hundreds of pigeons call it home. Beware entering the guano zone. Business is conducted in select spots. (Honduran immigration was located in El Salvador’s building. Charged $3 to stamp my passport.) The key bureaucrats operate in unmarked buildings, opening their doors to tramitador knocks. They require triplicate photocopies of everything. The permit to drive the 50 miles across Honduras to Nicaragua cost me 635 lempiras. (They won’t accept dollars. Cash only.) I held out on the moneychanger until he gave me L18/$. (ATM gives L19/$, no fee.) No one was at the fumigators’ booth. Others told me to drive on.

    We were stopped by police 6 times in Honduras. (I avoided a 7th with a pitstop for a Coke.) They checked everything, all papers, triangles, extinguishers, ... An unfastened seatbelt is an invitation to a big bite on your wallet. Three times, finding no apparent infractions, the traffic cops simply asked me for a ‘contribution‘. The stretch of road between San Lorenzo and Choluteca has some of the worst potholes in the Pan Am. It’s deceptive cause there are mini-sections of highway that seem good. Just as I remember it from my first trip there in 2006. Hit at moderate speeds some deep potholes can bend a rim, creating slow tire leaks. Much depends on a vehicles suspension, but broken axles can happen.

    At the last minute we decided to enter Nicaragua at El Espino, rather than the shorter route to Guasaule. It’s the unpleasant hassle of the more popular latter border crossing. But further, past Guasaule is a short section of the worst road, bar none, on the Pan Am. Dirt, gravel, puddles, a moonscape carved by tractor-trailers and the elements. (I’ve heard since that it got repaired with Reto-Milenia money. Don’t know?) The drive through the mountains up to El Espino is beautiful and the road is excellent. It was so clear when we drove that several ranges were visible, including some of the higher peaks around Tegucigalpa. We had lunch in San Marcos de Colon. The border crossing was a breeze. Nicaragua has raised immigration rates: it now costs $12 to get the passport stamp. Customs does not charge for a car permit, but it’s only valid for 30 days and must be extended in Managua at $1/day or renew by dipping down to Costa Rica. Nicaragua does require $12 car insurance.

    Several asked me if I was interested in putting (legally) Nica plates on my transport. Two gave me a full schedule of costs to be expected. (Will share if interested.) They worked for 'AlbaNica'.

    P.S With all the stuff we hauled down, I always said there was nothing to declare, all's personal. Got no hassles, fortunately. And usually only a glance at the mess was enough for customs inspectors.

  2. #2
    Fightin Irish JackMcG's Avatar
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    Default Re: On the road . . . again?

    After reading all this.... I have only one thing to say.... I will stick to flying, even if I am only going to Mexico! Great info and story thanks....
    "If you ain't bleeding, you ain't working!"

  3. #3

    Default Re: On the road . . . again?

    Good story. It hasn't really changed. I always cross in at El Espino, it is nice and cool and everything is good and friendly.

  4. #4
    House SOB Little Corn Tom's Avatar
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    Default Re: On the road . . . again?

    Nice story!
    Life's different here ... It's a whole 'nother pace.

  5. #5
    Viejo del Foro El Greco's Avatar
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    Default Re: On the road . . . again?

    I wouldn't go to mexico even if they payed me, And I thought Nica Police were bad
    Dios es Amor!

  6. #6
    Viejo del Foro Daddy-YO's Avatar
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    Default Re: On the road . . . again?

    Quote Originally Posted by robertharvey View Post
    Good story. It hasn't really changed. I always cross in at El Espino, it is nice and cool and everything is good and friendly.
    Thanks. Seeing you're from Texas Mr. Bob makes me think the journey through Matamoros would go a lot smoother for you cause I saw plenty of Texas plates on cars in that border town, less likely to get tailed & hassled for nada by patrol cars.

    Yes sir, El Espino was a treat. Far superior to eating Guasaule dust in that solar cooker.

  7. #7

    Default Re: On the road . . . again?

    Quote Originally Posted by Daddy-YO View Post
    Thanks. Seeing you're from Texas Mr. Bob makes me think the journey through Matamoros would go a lot smoother for you cause I saw plenty of Texas plates on cars in that border town, less likely to get tailed & hassled for nada by patrol cars.

    Yes sir, El Espino was a treat. Far superior to eating Guasaule dust in that solar cooker.
    Historically speaking, Tampico was always a challenge.

    Of course the manner in which I always evaded multas was to say; "I have no problem in paying this multa, however, I will need a receipt from you with your correct identification and the reason for this multa. You don't mind do you?"

    Usually, in fact without fail, they have always said; "go on your way, you are a bother."

    One of my specialties is being that bother.

  8. #8
    Para aquí para acá Jonh's Avatar
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    Default Re: On the road . . . again?

    Every time I see this thread in "New Posts" the voice of Willie Nelson fills my head.

  9. #9

    Default Re: On the road . . . again?

    Quote Originally Posted by Jonh View Post
    Every time I see this thread in "New Posts" the voice of Willie Nelson fills my head.
    Yes, without question. There was also another version with a parrot and I can't for the life of meself recall the name of the song or the artist?

  10. #10
    Viejo del Foro Daddy-YO's Avatar
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    Default Re: On the road . . . again?

    Quote Originally Posted by robertharvey View Post
    Historically speaking, Tampico was always a challenge.

    Of course the manner in which I always evaded multas was to say; "I have no problem in paying this multa, however, I will need a receipt from you with your correct identification and the reason for this multa. You don't mind do you?"
    Usually, in fact without fail, they have always said; "go on your way, you are a bother."
    One of my specialties is being that bother.
    That's a great tip. Altho I'd like to see someone else try it before I do.

    Tampico was one of oyr favorite spots. No problems with the traffic bullies. Maybe it was timing? Stayed in the Mansion Real hotel overlooking the central plaza. Top notch.

    Re: sweet ol' Willie He wrote 'Crazy' but I never heard him sing it, recorded or in concert. The lyrics always made more since to me with a man singing them.

  11. #11

    Default Re: On the road . . . again?

    Quote Originally Posted by Daddy-YO View Post
    That's a great tip. Altho I'd like to see someone else try it before I do.

    Tampico was one of oyr favorite spots. No problems with the traffic bullies. Maybe it was timing? Stayed in the Mansion Real hotel overlooking the central plaza. Top notch.

    Re: sweet ol' Willie He wrote 'Crazy' but I never heard him sing it, recorded or in concert. The lyrics always made more since to me with a man singing them.
    That high arched bridge in Tampico scares the heck out of me. I know is was built by Mexican engineers number 1 and the degree of incline and decline are the other. With a load behind you, the push is uncomfortable.

  12. #12
    Viejo del Foro El Greco's Avatar
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    Default Re: On the road . . . again?

    Quote Originally Posted by robertharvey View Post
    That high arched bridge in Tampico scares the heck out of me. I know is was built by Mexican engineers number 1 and the degree of incline and decline are the other. With a load behind you, the push is uncomfortable.
    I Bet it is
    Dios es Amor!

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