Sunday, June 30, 2013

Costa Rica-Nicaragua Border Crossing Procedure

Border Town: Guasaule
Direction: Northbound (From Costa Rica to Nicaragua)
Costs:
  • 50 Cólones - copy of permit
  • US$4 - fumigation
  • US$1pp - Nicaraguan entry tax
  • US$12pp - Nicaraguan visa
  • US$5/car - vehicle tax
  • US$12 - insurance

Copies: (1) copy of Costa Rican Vehicle Permit


Costa Rica side:

Before you cross into Nicaragua, you must go through Costa Rican immigration to get your exit stamp and through customs to cancel your vehicle permit. You can do these in any order you prefer. I would recommend not arriving at the border anytime between 10:00am and 1:30pm as the busses arrive with hordes of people between those times.
Aduana
The aduana that you need to visit is the one that is located next next to the semi cargo inspections.
  1. Before you go in (although you may want to verify with the customs agent as policies constantly change), you should get a single copy of the front of the Costa Rican vehicle permit at the copy office in front of aduana. Cost is ₡50.
  2. Enter the aduana building directly across from the copy shop.
  3. Give the copy, the permit, and the driver’s passport to the customs agent.
  4. He will stamp both the copy and the permit and provide the copy back to you as proof of your canceled permit.
Migración
  1. Park inside the fence at the migración office. (Guides and money changers will try to get you to park outside of it so they can assist you and convince you into an exchange.)
  2. Enter the building and fill out the exit form.
  3. The agent will take the exit form and stamp your passport.
Crossing Over
  1. When you have completed the migración and aduana procedures in Costa Rica, you are free to cross over to Nicaragua.
  2. When you drive back onto the road from the parking lot, you will come up next to the semis. Keep to the left of the semis and drive up to the drop-bar barricade, where the officials will check your passports and canceled permit.

Nicaragua side:

  1. After that, you cross over to the right and stop at the tent gazebo where Nicaragua officials will check your passports and vehicle and provide you a customs form for your vehicle. Fill this form out before you start deal with more customs officials.
  2. Drive to the area migración and aduana and park.
  3. Per usual, you must visit migración and aduana before you can leave, but you can do this in any order you which.
  4. You must also purchase insurance for the vehicle at some point. I would suggest doing this before you get the police signature as he asked us for it. At this station, they are located inside the aduana office with a booth that says “Seguros.”
Migración
  1. Enter the entrance (entrada) section of Migración buildings.
  2. As you enter, there is a booth where you must pay a $2pp entry tax and receive a receipt for it.
  3. Proceed to the windows, where you will fill out the entrance form and turn it in. You will also present your passport to be stamped and pay $12pp. Make sure you get your receipt and your tourist card.
Aduana
    1. Wandering about in the parking lot is an aduana official. He is normally wearing a polo and a neck lanyard both of which say “DGA” and has a clipboard. Get him to sign the customs form you received at the tent gazebo.
    2. Then you must get the police officer to sign your form. He could be wandering around, but we usually find him in or near the customs office. He wanted to make sure you had gotten insurance and paid your vehicle tax.
    3. If you have not paid your vehicle tax yet, he will escort you to the booth to pay the tax. The booth is in the customs office with a pink Nicaragua sign on it. The tax is $5/car.
    4. With signatures from the entry station, aduana, and police, plus insurance, you can now proceed to the customs agent inside the customs office (only one with a computer and no sign) who will review the information and create your permit. She will need your title or registration, driver’s passport, and driver’s license in addition to the customs form with signatures.
    Leaving
    1. With permit in hand, you can drive north (around the buildings) to the exit.
    2. At the exit, there is another set of officials who will check your passport stamps and vehicle permit paperwork.
    3. Then you are free to go!

    Saturday, June 29, 2013

    Day of Meetings and Greetings

    Thursday

    Thursday was a full day for us. Not only were we meeting Juan and Steph for lunch, but I wanted a chance to see both oceans at once, and we needed to get to our next camping site. To see the oceans, we were going to drive up to the peak of Volcán Irazú. According to the guidebooks, the best time to have a chance at seeing the oceans was first thing in the morning. According to the GPS, it would take 2.5 hours to get to the peak, so we would need to leave at 5:30 to be there by the time it opened at 8am.

    DSC04502 The view from our camping spot at Paraíso de Quetzal at 5:15am.

    We woke up at 5am. Surprisingly, we actually got on the road ahead of schedule. Even more surprisingly, we arrived at then entrance a full 45 minutes before it opened, meaning we had made great time.  We had time to spare, so we made breakfast of pancakes and chilled until the park rangers showed up. As we drove, it was cloudy and rainy, so there didn’t seem to be much hope to see the oceans. But the clouds cleared as the morning ran on, so we did at least get to see some landscapes other than clouds.

    DSC04506

    DSC04536

    It was good to be early as starting at about 9am, tons of busses started arriving, including kids on field trips. We left to make our way to our meeting place of Jalepeños Central. Unlike earlier, the GPS said 1.5 hours to the restaurant and it took more like 2 hours. Fortunately, we still had plenty of time until our meeting time, so Jonathan sipped a Coke, and we split an apple dumpling while we waited.

    At long last, we finally got to meet Juan and Steph, whom we had been trying to meet up with since late April!  We had a good time chowing down on some monster burritos and chatting about van life and such things. Of course, we also had to show off each other’s vans. Jonathan’s smuggling bin is something which everyone’s interested in seeing.

    After the lunch break, we had to drive the remaining distance to Fortuna, where we planned to stay at Gringo Pete’s, which was another 2 hours of driving. And, for some reason, the GPS’s logic took us off the perfectly good highway before it ends in San Ramón and had us take some crazy backroads through the towns and suburbs. Unfortunately, I didn’t catch the problem early enough to do anything about it. I tell you, as much as I appreciate having a GPS, it really does some weird stuff sometimes. Despite all that, we made it to Gringo Pete’s safe and sound.

    We chose Gringo Pete’s as a place to stay because Jonathan’s great uncle knew the owner back in their high school days. Small world, huh? So as we got signed in to use their facilities as we camped in the lot next door, we briefed Pete on his old friend’s life.

    Friday

    We thought about crossing the border this day, but with all the events and driving we had done in the last few days, we felt like it was time for a rest. Plus, we needed to get our laundry done, again. So we stayed put and got some things done that needed to be done. Jonathan worked on cleaning brake dust off the rear tires and inspecting a noise we had been hearing from the engine. I worked on plotting our course back to the states and finding campgrounds. Occasionally, Pete would come by and tell us a story. Of course, Jonathan’s great uncle had warned us not to believe anything Pete told us about him. :D

    Thursday, June 27, 2013

    To See the Sloths

    Tuesday

    If you didn’t know, one of my goals in this Central American trip was to see a sloth. I had studied them back in 3rd grade and loved them. Yeah, they are slow, smelly creatures, but they seemed like an underdog that no one wanted. Which made them prime territory to become a favorite of mine. As I started to plot our way back north, I realized I hadn’t made much allowance for seeing any sloths. Costa Rica seemed to be the major place to see them. Although, I knew Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio had sloths, I was loath to go there because of the throngs of tourists that seem to make the place an amusement park (or so I had heard and read); it didn’t sound like a place either Jonathan or I would enjoy. I thought maybe Parque Nacional Corcovado might also have sloths, but it is a difficult park to enter. When we stopped in Santiago to help Linda and Aron, I asked Linda about the specifics of going to Corcovado. She made it sound pretty easy and that we could do a day trip. So, when we crossed the border into Costa Rica, I asked Jonathan about whether he was ok with driving a bit farther today. It was only 2 more hours (we had only been on the road for 1-2 hours already) to Puerto Jiménez. He was OK with it, so I made my decision. We would go to Parque Nacional Corcovado, one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world.

    The road to Puerto Jiménez was (almost) completely paved, albeit curvy through the mountains. We arrived in time for lunch. I guess before I get too far into this, I should explain a bit more of my wants, desires, and expectations on this sloth search into Corcovado. When most people go to Corcovado, they drive south of Puerto Jiménez to Carate and then hike 12 km to Sirena Ranger station where they stay at least one night and then return the way they come. I did not want to do this. First, Jonathan and I enjoy sleeping in the van, don’t have tent gear with us, and sleeping in dorms is not desirable. Second, the road to Carate from Puerto Jiménez is a bumpy dirt road that consists of river crossings that may or may not be shallow. When I volunteer Chuck to take such roads, we often end up with something broken or damaged. So my thought was to enter the park from the east side near Puerto Jiménez, for example at Los Patos ranger station, hike for the morning, then return to the vehicle and get out of Dodge.

    Corcovado-park-map

    After a break for lunch, we started hunting for a tour guide and/or the park information center to figure out how to accomplish my aforementioned goals. On the main strip as we walked down the road, all the tour guides were closed for lunch. So we asked a local how to find the park info center. At first they weren’t sure what I was talking about, then they discussed it and pointed us towards the beach. I figured they didn’t have a clue, but driving through town would possibly help us located. So we started following their instructions. The beach side road wasn’t any good, so we turned back around. When we did, we saw a sign that said the park info center was 1 km ahead. We continued to follow the signs, but they didn’t have a sign for the actual building and we couldn’t find it. I thought maybe we should try for another tour office for which I saw signs. This place actually had someone there, but they didn’t do tours to Corcovado. They did recommend us to a place in town, we had been there, but they had been closed. He said they should open soon. I also asked him if there were any camping options in town. There were. Back near the ferry port, there is a little blue house owned by Adonis and he allows camping on his property. Well, at least we had some camping options lined up.

    It was now closer to 2:00pm, so we went back to the main road to see if tour places there were open yet. The recommended location (OSA Wild) was still closed, would be until 2:30. So we walked across the street to another tour place. When we talked to him about a guide, he said that it would be an all day adventure starting at 6am, with a 2 hour colectivo ride there, 4 hours of hiking and 2 hours back. Not something to which we were really looking to commit. Jonathan thought it would be good to try the information center for the park to see if we could get more “unbiased” information. Armed with a map this time, we tried to locate the info center for the 3rd or fourth time. I found the appropriate block and figured a large unmarked complex might be our best bet. I went inside, saw a sign for “Turismo” and entered. Apparently that was the place. The lady at the desk was apparently busy with whatever she was doing and not eager to assist me. When I tried to talk to her about what my options were for a day trip into Corcovado, she started filling out paperwork instead of talking with me. Then she wanted to know where I wanted to go. I tried to explain that I only wanted to do a day trip and she tried to direct me to Carate again. I thought Los Patos might be a good option. She said if I wanted to go to Los Patos I needed a local guide, which I could find in town. She printed me out a bill and told me that I needed to take it to the bank in town to pay and then return. Oh joy, another trip through town!

    Before we went and paid for park admission, I thought we had better figure out if we could get a guide. So went one more time to the OSA Wild store. It was finally open. He was willing to set me up with a guide, but explained that if I wanted to see wildlife, particularly sloths, the best location was between Carate and Sirena, exactly where I didn’t want to go. He didn’t think Los Patos would be a good idea. Faced with this information, I realized that visiting Corcovado was probably not a good way to realize my goals. So, we gave up the idea and went back to the van. After a bit of re-evaluation, we decided to relocate further up the coast Parque Nacional Marino Ballena to camp with the intention of visiting the dreaded Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio in the morning. Thus, we added about another 1.5 hours of driving to Jonathan’s already full day of driving, but at least we didn’t have to pay to camp that night.

    That night, I thought I would take a stroll along the beach and see if I could spot any nesting turtles. This time around, the crabs were out in full force. I could hear them moving just out of sight in the shadows. When I stepped up to the driftwood barrier to cross to the beach, the crabs started moving. I stopped to let them stop moving before I proceeded, but in the process one went directly over my foot. *Shudder* It freaked me out enough to abort my mission and go back to the shower I was supposed to be taking, hoping no more crabs would make their way to me.

    Wednesday

    As we got closer to Manuel Antonio, I knew we were going to be in over our heads, drowning in a sea of tourists. It was gringo-ville and tourist-oriented. Very much a place we try to avoid in normal circumstances. When we found parking, it cost ₡3000 ($6) to park, regardless of how long we would be there. That enough was to start making Jonathan aggravated. I thought we would have to leave right there. Fortunately he was accommodating enough to proceed so I would have my chance to see a sloth. We paid our $10 per person fee, and walked toward the park. At the entrance, I asked the guy taking the tickets where I would be most likely to see a sloth, he said this was the main trail and it should work.

    Now, normally, swarms of people and guides are obnoxious, but this time it did have an advantage. We were able to skip the hiring of a guide and simply take advantage of those who had. The guys would have their large scopes out and pointed at the animal. We could come up and look in the general direction and find it or ask someone and be told at what we were looking. That worked fairly well for us. After the ever-present howler monkeys, the first animal we spotted using this method was the sloth!  We were only about 100 meters into the park. Jonathan says, “Well, you have seen your sloth, I guess we can go back now!”  Technically, yes, but we paid for the park, might was well as walk it. There was some interesting animals on the way.

    DSC04444

    DSC04452

    DSC04445
    According to a guide, this is a venomous pit viper.


    DSC04460 These guys were playing around the trail. Interestingly, my camera recognized the monkey’s face.

    DSC04483

    Afterwards, we decided to grab some lunch and see if we could snag some WiFi. We were trying to meet up with Juan and Stephanie on Thursday and needed to email them. We ended up at a cool place called “El Avión.” They didn’t have WiFi, but the place across the street did that we could steal.

    DSC04489The restaurant was designed around a 1954 Fairchild C-123, originally purchased by the US government in the ’80s for the Nicaraguan Contras, but it never made it out of its hangar in San José because of the ensuing Iran-Contra scandal that embroiled Oliver North and his cohorts in the US government.

    DSC04495 The Chicken Rice was tasty and we had Tres Leches cake for dessert.

    Eventually, we would our way back up the long and twisty road to Paraíso del Quetzal for the night and enjoyed the cool mountain (3000m) nights.

    Wednesday, June 26, 2013

    Leaving Panamá – Entering Costa Rica - Border Crossing Procedure

    Tuesday
    When we had internet, I forgot to look up the border crossing procedure when you exit Panamá and enter Costa Rica. So on our drive to the border, I attempted to use our Kindle’s 3G service to look up instructions. That is a chore, I tell you, as the pages load slowly and sometimes you lose connection and have to start the procedure all over again. I couldn’t really find anything useful. The one article that went into detail about it was about a different crossing and said things like “go the second window,” etc. Nothing useful like “aduana” or migración. So I thought I would write up an article for people like me to be able to navigate across the border without a guide and without standing in the wrong line for 30 minutes.

    Well, from our previous experience with missing the Costa Rica migración and aduana areas and standing in the wrong Panamanian line, we knew that we needed to go to aduana first. However, there are a couple of different aduana windows in Panamá. When we entered, we had to go to the one that said “Captura y Manifesto” and the “Turismo” line in that one. We figured we would try that one again. However, someone came up to us and told us we needed to go the other “Aduana” window if we already had a permit. So we went over there. Apparently this information was correct, as the lady stamped our permit, handed it back, and told us to go the inspectors behind the benches. We went there and the guy directed to another inspector. This one was already inspecting two semis, so we had to wait a bit. Interestingly, when it was our turn, this inspector gave us a more thorough inspection than when we entered the country. In fact, it was one of the more thorough inspection than any of the other ones we had encountered. In fact, one guy wanted to look in every possible cubby hole. For a minute, I thought he would make us unscrew and detach our headliner since there was 4 inches between the ceiling and the rooftop storage compartment. Fortunately, he settled for us lifting up the pop top instead.

    After our permit had been signed, he sent us back to the “Aduana” window. The lady there stamped it, asked for the driver’s passport, and stamped that, then shooed us off. Now, we decided to try the exit line of immigration. It was short and we were processed quickly. Then we were free to go Costa Rica.

    We saw the fumigation apparatus and figured we would drive through it. They sprayed us and then we stopped, figuring we were supposed to pay. I went up to the guy at the window and tried to ask if we were supposed to pay. He didn’t hear me, but another guy down the way waved me down. I thought he was he must be who we were supposed to pay so I went to him instead. He said that we didn’t need to pay. Apparently they had started made it free to fumigate. Onwards to the offices. This time, I convinced Jonathan to park next to the offices, where it said “no parking – only for inspections.” I figured if we were getting a permit, aduanas would be out to inspect us. Besides, there were a ton of other people parking here.

    After filling out the same two forms that apparently every Central American country has for entrance and exit immigration, we quickly made it through immigration. Then we went to Aduana. We presented our suspended permit pass and were given 3 forms to fill out. We asked about getting our vehicle permit extended (we only had 10 days left and wanted plenty of wiggle room to get out of the country), but for whatever reason, he wouldn’t do it. Said we should have asked for a 90-day pass when we had received the original vehicle permit. So, forms filled out, we were issued a reactivated permit. He gave it to another official whose job was to inspect the vehicle. She wanted to see the VIN and the plate. Another officer came up and looked inside. Apparently we passed, she provided us the permit and told us to go through fumigation. I told her that we had just passed through it when we crossed. She looked at me like she didn’t believe me, but I explained the vehicle was still wet from it and she let us go. Wouldn’t have been a big deal to go through it again, though since it doesn’t cost. She is probably supposed to witness the event.

    All in all, it really wasn’t too bad. Despite not knowing the procedure beforehand, we only waited in the wrong line once for 30 seconds (we had come prepared to be in several wrong lines for 30 minutes at a time). Plus, it went rather quickly. The traffic at 10:30am on a Tuesday was low, so that helped a lot.

    These instructions are for the crossing the border at Paso Canoas with a vehicle, but they procedure should be similar in other crossings.
    1. Go to aduana first. There are several different windows for aduana: Captura y Manifesto [where you get your permit] or Aduana [where you cancel your permit]). You will want to go to the Aduana window.
    2. They will take your vehicle permit, stamp it, and then hand back your permit and tell you to go get an inspector to look at your vehicle. The guys in polos with clipboards are your aduana inspectors. These guys were located behind the benches in front of aduana. He may send you off to another inspector.
    3. Get your vehicle inspected and your permit marked appropriately by the inspector.
    4. Go back to the Aduana window and turn in your permit. They will ask to see the driver’s passport at this time as well and stamp and return it.
    5. Now, you can go to the Salida window on the migración side. They will stamp your passport, ask you a few questions and take your photo, then you are free to pass into the Costa Rican side.
    6. You will see a fumigation station as you approach the Costa Rican offices, you can go through it now or after aduana inspects your vehicle. When we crossed, we didn’t have to pay anything.
    7. Pull up to the Costa Rican offices (white building with a bit of an overhang/awning) on the right. There are parking spots next to the building that say no parking (No Estacionar), but since you will be getting your vehicle inspected, it is ok to park there.
    8. Walk towards the north side and go to the Entrada line of migración for entering Costa Rica. There should be some entrance forms on the counters for you to grab and fill out before you get to the window.
    9. After you get your immigration form filled out and your passport stamped by migración, you can go to aduana, whose offices are located down the hallway to the left of the migración.
    10. If you are re-entering Costa Rica (within 3 months of leaving it), here is where you will turn in your suspended permit pass. You will also have to fill out 3 forms.
    11. With re-issued (or new) permit in hand, the aduana official will accompany you out to your car to inspect the VIN and plate number and make sure you aren’t carrying contraband.
    12. When you pass, you will be handed the permit and told to go through fumigation. If you already have, you can explain that, and you are free to go.

    Tuesday, June 25, 2013

    The End of the Line

    Saturday

    Leaving the RV park, we started off down the Pan-American Highway towards the canal. As we got closer, it began to rain profusely. After the large suspension bridge, the rain tapered off and stopped. So much so that when we arrived at our destination, Parque Nacional Soberanía headquarters, it had yet to rain. However, as we tried to enter, we found the placed locked up (probably out to lunch) and the clouds ready to let forth their burdens, so we decided to wait out the rain in the van with lunch. When the rain had mostly stopped, we went inside to determine where we could camp and get a map for the path. They suggested camping there at headquarters where they had bathroom facilities and were welcome to use their kitchen if needed. They were quite friendly and helpful.

    DSC04389

    We decided to wait out the rest of the day in the van. I wanted to hit up el Camino del Oleoducto (Pipeline Road) in the morning when there would more likely be wildlife to spot. When Jonathan climbed up top to read, he spotted a litter of kittens in the abandoned park vehicle next to us. They were adorable!

    DSC04395 There are 5 of them, but it was so hard to get a pic of them all together as they would run when they saw us. I had to sneak out of the van and around the vehicle to get this.

    Sunday

    We rose early with aim of being on the road by 6:30am. True to form, we didn’t get on the road until about about 7am. With the signs, we found the trail/road easily enough. This pipeline road is supposed to have a high population of birds, with up to 535 known species. We walked along the path listening to the sounds of the jungle: the whirring of cicadas, the triple thunk of a woodpecker, the varying chirps of many different bird species. Unfortunately, it was difficult to spot any of the birds through the leaf cover, especially without binoculars.

    DSC04397 There were some crazy looking spiders along the trail and near our campsite. That picture of him is only slightly enlarged. I would say it was 3” toe-to-toe.

    With Jonathan’s sharp eyes, we did find some interesting creatures, including a large, beautiful butterfly that was colored blue from above and dark (maybe brown) from below. I wasn’t any good at getting pictures of them, though (too fast).

    DSC04406He is the dark spot in the center.   

    After our trek, we officially began our return through Central America! It has been a fascinating trip where both of us have learned and seen a lot. It is not over yet, but has reached its peak. 

    On the way back over the canal, we pulled over on the northern side of the canal to take pictures of it and the bridge. The northbound traffic lanes were closed along the entire length of the bridge, so we were able to walk down them to explore and get good views of the canal.

    DSC04428 These things looked a bit like sails from a distance.

    DSC04433 The Panamá Canal.

    While we were in the middle of the bridge, I spotted the carcasses of these HUGE beetles. Boy, was I glad they weren’t alive!

    DSC04432

    Monday

    Don’t you hate it when you get flustered in a situation and forget all the things you were supposed to do? And manage to accomplish the opposite of what you wanted to?  That is what happened to us today. It started out innocently enough.

    We woke up with a message from Linda and Aron, who were stuck in Santiago with van problems, desiring Jonathan’s advice. We were only 2 hours from Santiago and were going that way anyway today, so we decided to stop by.

    After an hour of traveling, we entered Aguadulce area. As we pulled into the metro area, there was a cop in the oncoming traffic with its lights flashing. We watched it turn into a retorno (turn-around) and sit there with its lights flashing as we approached. Many people just ignored it and kept going. We pulled to the far lane and went slow and kept going like everyone else. However, when we passed it, the driver stuck his arm out and waved at us at what looked liked they wanted us to pull over. There were other vehicles around us, though, so we hoped it was one of them. They pulled out of the retorno and pulled up next to us and signaled we should pull off. So far, nothing too unusual. We had been pulled over before.

    This time, the guy came up and wanted to give us a ticket for not stopping. He was very hard to understand, but what I got out of it was that he wanted is to follow him to the police station to give and pay for a ticket. Well this was new and started to get me flustered. So Jonathan followed him. He immediately proceeded speeding down the road at a pace that was difficult to follow. Then he pulls off on the side of the road just outside of town. This should have been a warning flag. He then proceeds to tell us that we had been speeding: 82km/h in a 60 km/h area. Jonathan wanted to know where. At this point, the second officer comes up and says that another officer down the road called it in. (Another warning flag here.) He says the ticket will be $75. The second officer then goes back to the car. The original officer begins explaining the rules of the road with speed limits, etc. That we would have to go to Santiago to pay the ticket, etc. He said it would be $100, but for $50 he would not give us a ticket. Wow. Our first bribe actually offered. I talked with Jonathan. I didn’t want to pay a bribe. It isn’t honest; I don’t want to fuel the market. He agreed, so I tried to ask for the ticket by saying I would pay in Santiago. The officer says that for us, he would accept $40. Apparently he isn’t listening to me and I am getting flustered. I try to tell him we don’t have much. That we will go to Santiago. He still doesn’t accept it. I guess at this point, I was just ready to pay the money and started grabbing for the money. Jonathan stops me. We talk about it and decide to offer $20 and get it done with.

    Ugh.  Shortly after he left, I remember all the things I should have done. I should have said, “We want the ticket.” “We will go to Santiago.”  I should have asked for his name and badge #. I should have asked for the name and badge # of the officer who called us in. I should have never paid the bribe. Above all, remain CALM!!! Ugh, I hate it when I let the circumstances get me flustered and I do what I don’t want to do. I hope that should this happen again (I hope not), I will do better and not give in.

    We made it safely the rest of the way to Santiago and found the hotel Aron and Linda were staying. Within minutes, the guys were tearing into the wheel to find the issue. Turns out it was a bad wheel bearing, as they had thought. Fortunately for them, Jonathan had a spare we could give them. Otherwise they would have had to hunt around for one.

    DSC04436

    We said our goodbyes and wished them well on their journeys. Fortunately, we made it to our next stop at Las Lajas beach without any more excitement.

    Saturday, June 22, 2013

    An Ode to the Van Interior

    We have been traveling in Chuck nearly a year (10 months) now, and I have never really given an account of the updates to the interior of the van. 

    When we bought Chuck, his interior was butt-ugly.

    2012-04-07 10.54.24

    2012-04-07 10.55.04Notice how none of the fabrics matched? Goldenrod panels with blue and brown stripes on half the ceiling (another fabric on another half) and purple and brown intertwined curtains and checkered seats. Nasty. And DIRTY.

    Perhaps you can imagine how I might not appreciate living in something so ugly. My thoughts were that with anything and everything else that could go wrong, I at least needed to have a beautiful interior that would not grate on my nerves and compound any already aggravating situation. So, starting in January 2012, I worked for 8 months outfitting the interior. I pretty much pulled 40-45 hours/week at AA then came home to work another 20-30 hours on the interior parts.

    I think the hardest part for me was determining which colors and fabrics I wanted to use. I needed to not look too feminine (just wouldn’t work in Chuck) and fit both Jonathan’s and my tastes. Jonathan didn’t want to give much input (and he was working on a ton of stuff himself) and I am not the best when there isn’t one right answer. After many samples and stops at fabric stores, I finally decided on a brown, golden tan, and blue-tinged green (maybe you could call it sea-foam green?) palette. I think my fabric may almost have been supernaturally provided since the store from which I bought them, Fabric Resources of Tulsa, opened just in time to be in the initial fabric options and closed by the end of the year. They had great upholstery fabrics at nearly half the cost of the other fabric stores in town. I fell in love. Anyways, back to the story…

    2012-04-14 11.03.25 These are the fabrics that I ended up using (minus the white see-through piece).

    I chose my fabrics for the seats, and then hunted down some options for the curtains and the panels. Once decided, I went to work. I wasn’t absolutely sure I could do it… I had never reupholstered anything before, but I knew how to work a sewing machine and I had read many accounts of DIY-fanatics on the Samba doing it with good results. I figured if those burly men who had never touched a sewing machine before could do it, surely I—with my experience in arts and embroidering—could do it. I started with some easier projects to get my confidence up.

    I pulled off the panels pulled off the nasty fabric and reused the panels wherever I could, but most of them where were warped and damaged. So, I bought some hardboard, traced out the panels and cut them out. Probably the hardest part of this projects was figuring out how I was going to make my limited amount of fabric work (I bought a textured vinyl that was heavily discounted because there were only two cut sections of it left—probably returned from someone else) with all the panels having the stripes in the same direction. I managed to do it—barely. There are some corners with barely any fabric to hold it on and the panels on the left that are mostly behind the cabinets only have the vinyl on what is showing and that is piece-meal at that, but it worked.

    2012-04-14 17.16.37 Testing out a layout that might get all the lines vertical and still have enough fabric. Note: this method shown won’t work, you must have all the pieces facing in the same direction (in this case the viewable part must be seen).

    Then, I worked on seats. I figured I would start on the rear bench seat and mattress first. Oh the learning curves! When I put the mattress together, I used one large piece of fabric for the whole thing. I basically put the mattress in it and folded the fabric over it and pulled it tight, marked it and then removed the mattress, made a few sews and added the zipper to two of the sides. I should have left the mattress in there while I pinned it up, though, as I ended up with the zipper on one side at a different height than the other side. But, since you can’t see the zipper or the sews in normal use, it didn’t matter much. Lesson learned. It was quite the interesting start as well, because after I finished the mattress, I realized that I had not factored the bottom half of the mattress into the amount of fabric needed for the brown microfiber. Oh well, nothing harmed, just had to make another trip to the store.

    The rear bench seat sewed together pretty easily, but to make things more difficult, it was at this point that I wanted piping. So I made another trip to the store to try to find something durable enough in the green color (without stripes or pattern) to work as piping. Took a bit of work, but I finally found some outdoor material that would work. I had to sit for a while cutting strips, putting piping material in and sewing it shut, but the result was worth it. The look just wouldn’t have been as good, wouldn’t have popped without it. When creating the rear bench look, I went ahead and sewed the five strips (brown-pattern-brown-pattern-brown) together in a length that would cover both back and seat parts. That way they would be guaranteed to line up. Unfortunately, when I put the fabric onto the seat, I didn’t make sure that it lined up in the same direction it was cut, I think I rotated one of them 180° so that it didn’t quite line up. It is OK though, you hardly notice it.

    The front seats were the tricky ones. However, I used the basic tenet of sewing using templates by carefully removing the old seat covers and removing their stitches to see how I needed to cut and shape my fabric into a cover. I marked all the seams with a marking pencil before I tore out the seams. My one mistake was that I didn’t mark places where the different pieces needed to match up with each other. Even without doing that, they still turned out pretty good, there is just a seam or two that is a bit out of place.

    2012-06-16 15.32.11

    Lastly, I worked on the curtains. These cute little guys were a lot more work than they appear. I made thermal curtains, so there are four layers to each one: the outer lining, a heat-reflective (in our case an emergency blanket—I don’t recommend using the ones I did as they tear too easily), insulation (batting), and the decorative lining. It was like each curtain was four curtains. And, this process was the most dangerous one. Most of the cutting, piecing, and sewing was done in our apartment. While it is spacious, there is really no place where I can work well with my sewing. So I would cut and piece and pin in our bedroom on the floor and then go to the dining room table to sew it together. With the curtains, I did a lot of ironing. It is probably not the smartest idea to iron on the ground in a limited space as you expose too many of your limbs to burning. I managed to burn my arm in a few small places before I did a real zinger on my leg.

    2012-07-22 08.14.24 I still have the scar from this one. I apparently also didn’t know how to treat a really bad burn and did all the wrong things.

    Unfortunately, with all the sewing I had been doing, especially through thick fabrics, I wore out my little ol’ sewing machine. It had been faithful and strong all through the process, but halfway through the curtains, I just couldn’t make any headway with it. Tangles and loose thread would prevent me from being able to sew. Desperate to finish in time to make it to Alaska, I called up my friend from Bible study, Haley. Generous person as she is, she allowed me to intrude on her home and wonderful sewing machine for a couple of days. I must tell you, after working on my basic Walmart special, hers was like a dream. It handled the fabric so easily, the stitching was perfect, it actually feed the fabric at a decent pace… I want one like that eventually. But I digress. Not only did magnanimous Haley allow me to use her machine, but she started helping me finish the curtains and giving me much-needed advice. With her help, we finished the curtains in time for our planned departure.

    2012-07-17 15.15.12

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    Besides the upholstery, we needed to do something about the floor. The original brown carpet was foul-smelling and worn. I just didn’t think it would work for us. So, we ripped it out (that was some work, I tell you). To replace it, I purchased some RubberCal flooring. Jonathan cut and installed it, seaming it together with Sika-Flex.

    For the middle floor, we had planned on using the wood flooring that was in it when we bought it. But the underfloor accidently got thrown away. As such, the wood flexed too much. So, we put more hardboard down and laid pressure-adhesive tiles on it. (These didn’t stay down very well between the cold in Alaska and the heat in Baja, so we later used 3M’s spray-on adhesive to glue them down). The finished product is, in my opinion, beautiful and has proven to be rather durable.

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    The two items that made all this work possible are 3M’s 90 spray adhesive and wonder sewing tape. The adhesive is supposed to withstand high temperatures, making it ideal in a vehicle setting. And the wonder tape saved my fingers from some nasty pin sticks as it held my fabrics together with more precision than I could get with a pin. It also made it easier to sew with the sewing machine since I didn’t have to sew over a pin or pull it out.

    Oh Panamá!

    This recounts the events of the last several days which have been mostly quiet and blessedly uneventful. Be warned that they may be a bit boring.

    Tuesday

    We (I) wanted to go either up the Volcán Barú or along the Sendero Los Quetzales on Tuesday. But with getting laundry done and talking with the fellow vanagoners (Andamos de Vagos), I felt like I was being too rushed, especially since I had no idea how to get there and we needed to go first thing in the morning to beat the rains that normally fell starting at about 2pm. So we decided to do use Tuesday as a rest day.

    First off, we went to a bakery for breakfast with the Linda and Aron. They had some good-looking muffins, which I loaded up on for breakfast for the rest of the week. On the way back, I managed to translate for Jonathan to get an universal fuel filter at an auto parts store. Then, we went to the town’s visitor center to find out about the trails. We made a bank run and then we went back to the hostel to do whatever we needed to get done. For me that was catching up on blogging. For Jonathan, that was working on the van. He swapped fuel filters and cleaned the air filter. He also set up the wireless media center for me! Now I can stream movies easily whenever I want! I had no idea that he was working on that and he came out to the common area where I was sitting and started playing a movie. He was like “Watch this!” I asked him what we were watching, and he replied Yes Man. I was confused as to why this was important enough for him to show me before I realized that he must be streaming it. I was pretty excited. We made use of it that evening to watch House, Season 2. (For those of you remembering that we were recently watching Season 3, we skipped Season 2 because we didn’t have it but we stocked up on a few more seasons when we came back to the States so we jumped back to it.)

    Wednesday

    I had told Jonathan that I wanted to be on the way to the trail by 7am. But true to our form, we didn’t make it over there and start hiking until about 9:30am. Between packing and getting packs packed and making lunch for the trail, we were a bit slow. We made it up the scenic road to the ranger station though and parked. There was another 2km until the trail, but we weren’t sure if there was parking and if we could make it in the van (probably could, but more Semuc Champey results were undesirable). So we started hiking. About the time we reached this vehicle bridge made of two 1”x12” wood planks on 12”x12” beams, Jonathan was starting to notice these bugs. I would say that they were a sort of cross between a moth and a mosquito with larger, noticeable wings, a quiet approach, and a annoying bite.

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    As we progressed onto the actual trail, they progressively grew more populous and more savage. They really liked Jonathan, despite his being soaked in DEET. So much so that he had to change from his shorts to his jeans and put on his rain coat. Even then, we had to keep walking to keep from being swamped with them. I am sure the hike would have been an interesting one, but a little over an hour in, we found the situation too miserable to continue. We turned back.

    DSC04334 These pests kept us from getting very far.

    DSC04332 A river crossing on the trail.

    We made it back to the van in time for lunch and then drove back down the road. We had talked about staying in Boquete another night and enjoying its coolness, but then I discovered that our next destination was 6 hours away. We try to avoid drives of that length, so after a short nap, we took off to a campsite that would break up the drive and ended up at Las Lajas beach. My recent policy has been to try to stick to highlands and avoid beaches except in times of necessity or if there is something really cool there in order to avoid the disgusting heat and humidity we have been experiencing. This was the necessity exception. Fortunately, although it rained and was humid, the temperature was reasonable and I slept well.

    Thursday

    After a 3.5-hour drive, we made it to Surfer’s Paradise in Santa Catalina. Lo and behold, Linda and Aron were there as well. We bought a book on surfing and learned that it is better to start off on a boogie board and then move to a long board. Since we are complete novices, we decided to start off with a boogie board and see how it goes. We ate some lunch and then Jonathan and I grabbed a boogie board and went down to the beach. We had to work on technique quite a bit, but I think we both caught a wave or two.

    DSC04354 Moon-walking into the water.

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    After we returned to the van, I actually had enough spare time to write a post that I have been trying to write since August, but I had even started it 2 months ago, but never had the chance to finish it.

    Friday

    We woke up in the morning to the sounds of the green parrots in the mango tree outside. With nothing to hold us in Santa Catalina, we packed up and headed out quickly. When we went through Santiago, we ended up on a nice road in a rich neighborhood. When we passed under a tree, a lizard dropped onto our windshield! I got Jonathan to pull over so I might get him to safety, but he ran off into cubby holes on the van roof. I don’t know if he got off to safety or just found a safer place to ride the rest of the way.

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    We made it to Santa Clara in four hours, enjoying the four-lane, divided highway of the Pan-American in Panamá. There are two places you can camp in your vehicle in Santa Clara, an RV park on the highway (yes! A real RV park in Central America!) or a balneario on the beach. We had heard the price of the beach location was $3pp while the RV park was $20. We decided to go for the beach location first. Eventually we found it (after making a wrong turn, being told incorrectly by the guard, and walking around in exploration). The owner said it was $7 and we would get the use of the showers, bathrooms, and have security. We thought it reasonable, but when I shelled out the $7, she explained it was $7pp. At $14, I figured we might as well as go to the RV park and get WiFi. So we pulled back up the road to the RV park. Glad we did as it was only $15 (probably a rainy season discount) and it was a Friday. Probably meant a loud night at the beach.

    We spent the rest of the afternoon chilling. Well I did manage to be productive and clean our cups. Well, they regularly get rinsed and washed, unless you take time to clean out all the nooks and crannies, they can get pretty nasty. I had to sit with a toothpick and pick and scrape at every little surface intersection and there are a lot of intersections.

    The campground has a cat that came to visit us. He is cute and ugly at the same time.  (Jonathan here: I have decided to name him Sylvester, after Sylvester Stallone; due to his somewhat slack lower lip, and tendency to slur his consonants.)

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    Tuesday, June 18, 2013

    Long-Awaited Panamá

    Monday

    We were apparently eager to get into Panamá as, when we entered the border area, we completely skipped over Costa Rica customs/immigration. We didn’t even know we had until after we had stood in line at the Panamanian immigration exit line (thinking it was Costa Rica’s) and been told that we needed to go to aduana first. We walked around trying to find the appropriate aduana (it wasn’t as it was listed in our guide—for obvious reasons as we learned afterwards). As we wandered, a guide came up to us and asked us if we had gotten the Costa Rican exit stamp yet. We said no, they told us to cancel our permit first. He then explained that the Costa Rican booths were further up the road and we had passed them. Apparently Costa Rica really doesn’t care if you don’t get all your paperwork taken care of when you exit as there was no inspection when we crossed over. And, I hadn’t been looking for Costa Rican buildings on the way in, because google maps showed it as after the road splits into two one-ways (satellite view wasn’t working with the slow internet I had).


    View Larger Map
    This illustration is wrong and the Costa Rica office are on the north side of the road a quarter of the mile up the road.

    So, we got back in the vehicle and drove back up the road to the correct offices. We quickly got through the Costa Rican paperwork, suspending our vehicle permit (instead of canceling it since we would be back within 3 months). We then went back to the Panamanian side and the entry line was long (it had been short when we arrived earlier), so we thought we would try purchasing insurance first. However, the office we had been told about  (directly across the street) was closed. So we went and got in the entry line this time. After we got up to the front, we found out that we had to have a “ticket” and he sent us away. I had no idea what this meant, so I went to talk to the agent who had put a sticker in our passport. He said that since we drove a vehicle (and needed a vehicle permit and insurance), we had to get our insurance first and we could get our “ticket” there (I did remember seeing something about being able to buy your ticket when we were at the insurance place). I told him we tried to do that, but it was closed. He said there was another on the other street, so we walked over that direction again. But, as we walked up the street looking for the insurance place, the guide came up to us again. We explained the situation and he walked us over to the other insurance place (which was not on the street I thought it was). We got insurance and I asked her about the ticket. She explained that the insurance substituted for the ticket. She also combined the title and passport copies onto one page (and said we only needed one copy not 2) and only charged US$0.40 instead of the US$1.60 we were expecting for copies and $15 for the insurance (side note: Panamá uses the US dollars but calls them balboas—only difference is their dollar coins and fifty-cent pieces).

    Insurance in hand, we stood in line at the entry again and this time got our approval. We then went to the next stop: the Transito office. True to our perfect timing, they were out for lunch. So we went back to the van and made ourselves some lunch. That helped put us back into a good mood for when we ventured back up. They quickly stamped our insurance pages and then we went to customs line. From here, everything went according to the guide, except that we got stopped before the fumigation booth and had to pay $3 for fumigation. Free to go!

    And, as a reward, there was a four-lane divided highway. We actually went 100 km/h (62mph) for the first time since México. It was pretty exciting. Then, to top things off, when we stopped for gas, there was a self-service station. This was a first since the States! These two things (other than the trouble at the border crossing) gave us a very good first taste of Panamá.

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    We hadn’t decided where we wanted to stay in Boquete yet, either at a hostel that allows camping (Pension Topas) or at a free boondocking spot. We decided to try the hostel first, as it was closer and they might have laundry. Surprise of surprise, when we pulled up there was already a vanagon here. This was the first vanagon we had seen since southern México. I think that nearly sealed the deal for us. We asked about price ($12) and laundry. We couldn’t do laundry there, but there was a place down the street. Deal sealed. We pulled in and immediately started talking with the fellow vanagoners, Andamos de Vagos. We pretty much spent the evening swapping stories and parts.

    DSC04313 Installing the LED lights that Jonathan gave them.

    These experiences combined with the pleasant air (not hot and humid) in the highlands made for a very pleasant first experience with Panamá. On a side note, we are now in Eastern Time, but without Daylight Savings Time, which is equivalent to the Central Daylight Time right now.

    Monday, June 17, 2013

    Resplendent

    Saturday

    For our morning resplendent quetzal tour, we drove 8 km back up the highway to Parque Nacional Tapantí. Our guide walked along carrying his large scope and calling to the quetzals. He shortly spotted a female and let us see, then walked us around and we got a really good view of her.

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    Then we walked further up the hill and spotted a young male. He was flighty, never staying in a single location for more than a minute, so I never got any really good pictures of him.

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    As we continued walking looking for a quetzal, we spotted an emerald toucanet.

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    To get really good, close-up pictures of the birds, he took our camera and put the lens against his scope. It actually worked pretty well. I tried the method myself, but I wasn’t as good at it. I was very thankful my sensor was dust-free for this opportunity.

    DSC04195 This is an old quetzal nest (no eggs or anything) of which I took a photo using the lens to scope technique.

    DSC04210 Our guide with his large scope trying to locate a male quetzal who shortly alighted in the tree ahead.

    It was a short hike in a gorgeous countryside and a rather enjoyable morning.
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    DSC04175 There was a trout farm there.

    After we got back, Jonathan changed Chuck’s oil. The collapsible tub that I bought worked great. He also checked the fuel filter. When we left San José, Chuck started having power issues again. In fact, when we stopped for a toll the day before, Jonathan almost couldn’t get him to roll on through it. We had to pull over and turn off the engine for a few seconds. After that, it was fine for a while--at least until we started climbing Costa Rica’s highlands at night. We had finally gotten a chance to pass the slow farm truck and when we did, Chuck gave out on us and barely chugged to a stop on the shoulder. So Jonathan inspected this as well. He thought it might have been fuel filter issues. In fact, we had a lot of sediment in our fuel and the fuel was red. The redness we think is a Costa Rican practice, not indicative of some issue. He also swapped our fuel pumps in case it was fuel pump issue. As a plus, our campground host wanted the oil for his lawn mower. We were happy to give it to him.

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    After this and lunch, we decided to take the 4km hike around the property. Despite it being “Paraíso del Quetzal,” we didn’t see any quetzals there. There were lots of hummingbirds, tall white oaks, and pretty scenery.

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    After that, it was time to move on to our next destination Parque Nacional Marino Ballena. We found the place easy enough and enjoyed free camping at the entrance to the park. The plan was to see the turtles and dolphins and perhaps kayak, but the ranger told us it wasn’t quite the season for either of those yet, so we moved on the next morning.

    Sunday

    Our next spot was La Purruja Lodge in Golfito; it would be our last night in Costa Rica before moving on to Panamá. I was immediately charmed by its monkey inhabitants, the red-backed squirrel monkeys. And they also had gorgeous flowers.
    DSC04284 Too cute! They are small – about the size of a small cat.

    That wrapped up our time in Costa Rica for the southbound portion for on Monday we made our way to Panamá.