Driving to Costa Rica on the Road Less Traveled

Although this isn’t exactly where it all began, before I was dodging and/or killing some of the most deadly snakes in the Western Hemisphere, I decided to drive rather than fly to Costa Rica. I mark the beginning of this adventure in the epicenter of the Redneck Riviera: Panama City, Florida, where I purchased a four-wheel-drive Nissan pickup truck. A couple of days later I was pounding Coronas and shots of tequila in Boy’s Town, Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, where I had misspent several spring breaks before settling down and getting serious about life. My ‘pesonality’ is so much better appreciated south of the border.

For any who are thinking about trying it, let me be the first to tell you that driving from Florida to Costa Rica by yourself is not without its risks. I don’t want to start any arguments with womanly feminists, but that trip would be somewhere between highly and extremely dangerous for any female, especially if she didn’t speak Spanish. Even for this muy macho, the possibility of hitting an axle breaking pothole or black cow after dark (with subsequent driver through the windshield)  was too great to chance. At dusk of each day of this journey I would start looking for a fleabag hotel to stay for the night and hit the pueblo to see what mischief was about. 

I remember Guatemala as particularly beautiful, but the drive was frightening because I was nodding off at the wheel and there was no shoulder on the narrow two-lane winding mountain road where I could pull over to rest. I had no choice but to keep driving or to park in the middle of the road, so I drove with my head out the window and prayed that I would not fall asleep while admiring the scenery and 1,000-foot drop-offs.

Generally speaking, the drive was not too bad. I’ve been blessed with a cast-iron stomach, so the Montezuma’s revenge was tolerable, but the five border crossings that I made were each interesting, some more so than others. The primary objective at each new country was to figure out who the best connected expeditors were and pay the premium for their services. I’m always amazed at how American tourists’ honesty and sense of fairness  prohibit them from playing by the local rules of the game in foreign countries. They almost always screw themselves when traveling to third world countries because of a heightened sense of integrity that prevents them from going native.

The most stressful border crossing was an early morning entry into Nicaragua. The Nicaraguan border guards accused me of being drunk (I was not—it was too early) and they put me into a tiny interrogation room where some serious stress was applied. My guess is that they manage to extort money in that way from most Americans, but I was in no mood to play. My stubbornness eventually paid off, and they finally let me go. Thus, I avoided being arrested in Nicaragua for DUI when it was obvious to all concerned that I had not been drinking. I always felt in my gut like that particular little dance could have gone south pretty quickly, and I can only imagine how bad it might have turned out had I not spoken fluent Spanish.

The biggest excitement on the drive was early on when the police in Mexico City pulled me over for driving on a special road that required a permit which I, of course, did not have. The fine was $400, but I only had $200 in cash on me. Most of my money was in travelers’ checks. So began my rip-off gringo dance with the corrupt cops. After arguing for what seemed like hours, they told me that if they took me to jail, I would not see a judge until Monday morning. That got my attention. As it was just past dawn on Friday morning, I decided to pay the bribe (mordido) and be on my way. It is difficult to convey this in words how stressful that encounter was because the cops were convinced that I had more than $200, and I truly did not. I tried my best to convince them, but they wouldn’t believe the truth. At any rate, they meant to leave me with no cash whatsoever and they were successful. I even offered my travelers’ checks, but they didn’t want those. Finally, after they were convinced that I had no hidden stash, they relieved me of the $200, warned me not to get back on the special road, and we went our separate ways. I pulled into the first gas station that I came to and asked about the “special road.” The gas station attendant told me that I had just been ripped off, but not to worry, because the Mexican cops would rip off anybody, not just gringos.

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