Wheels on the Ground in Central America

In the last few years my husband and I have driven from Panama to Mexico and back a number of times. We have Panamanian residency and driver's licenses, our Hyundai Galloper is titled and registered in Panama, and we travel on US passports. Because I speak Spanish, the car title is in my name. So, I complete all the paperwork, and communication is not a problem. For anyone who might be considering car travel in this part of the world, here are some observations to make for a better trip.

Driving Guidelines

In general, weekends are good travel days, because there is less traffic and school is out. When we drove into Guatemala on a Sunday last month, we zoomed all the way to Rio Dulce and saw few trucks on the road. We never drive at night because the road conditions are such that it is just too dangerous.

What road conditions? Although the Pan-American Highway, designated CA 1, is the main route from Mexico to Panama, parts of it are in deplorable condition. Almost all the way it is a two lane road, often with no shoulder, and enormous potholes, not just big, but deep. Many are difficult to spot in the daylight and would be nearly impossible to see at night. If the vehicle ahead of you is swerving erratically all over the road, he may not be drunk, just avoiding the worst of the holes! Pay attention and take advantage of his local knowledge. Also, watch for speed bumps (topes, vibradores, tumulos) in small towns.

What else? Especially in Nicaragua and Honduras, many types of transport share the road with the cars, trucks and buses. You will see: motorcycles, scooters, bicycles, bicycle taxis, tuk-tuks (small, three wheeled taxis), horses, horse or ox-drawn carts, and pedestrians. Cattle and horses are often tethered along the right-of-way to graze. Drivers and passengers must be vigilant and constantly watch the road.

Unlike the US, hotels do not sprout up at every highway intersection. There are very few large chain hotels, and then only in tourist destinations. As a result, it's important to plan where you will stop for the night, to assure you'll have a place to stay. Advance reservations are not necessary (unless it's Christmas or Holy Week, in which case, stay home!), but having a guide book to help you find accommodations is a good idea (we like the Lonely Planet guides). There are good, well-priced local hotels in all the large cities, but you have to leave the main highway to find them. Many have wireless internet, a swimming pool, and include breakfast in the room rate.

Las Fronteras (Border Crossings)

Border crossings will consume a good deal of your time, so be prepared with plenty of patience and smiles! When you arrive at a border crossing, find a spot to park in the shade if you can. With the exception of a corrupt policeman in Honduras, all the officials I have dealt with have been courteous, helpful and professional.

Some of the "guides," on the other hand, are not so courteous. In Nicaragua and Honduras, you may be surrounded by locals offering to help you through the process in return for a "voluntary donation." If it is your first time, you may want to designate one (just one!) to assist you. Otherwise, tell them firmly, "No gracias," and if they keep pestering you, tell them, "Basta" (Enough!) or "No me molesta" (Don't bother me!).

Your first stop at each frontera (border) will be Migración (Immigration). Nicaragua charges US$12 to enter, and US$2 to exit, per person. Honduras charges US$3 per person to enter. All the other countries are free.

Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua have an Immigration agreement known as the CA-4. When you enter any one of these countries your passport will be stamped for 90 days, and is valid in all four countries. This means you have a total of 90 days' stay as a tourist, regardless of which of the four countries you visit. You must check in at Migración in each of these four countries, but typically, El Salvador does not stamp your passport for entry or exit from the other CA-4 countries.

Your papers, please ...

Aduana (Customs) requires a permit to bring your personal vehicle into each country, and this can be time-consuming. The registered owner of the vehicle must provide their passport and registered title of the vehicle. They will want to see the originals, and they will want copies, so make plenty of copies of these before you leave home.

The requirements of each Aduana vary, but you will also need originals and copies of your driver's license, annual inspection, and license plate renewal. Some of the copies you need cannot be made in advance (e.g., the stamp in your passport, or the document from the last Aduana), so there are copias (copy services) readily available.

A special consideration is necessary if you are driving in El Salvador. Aduana allows only one 60-day car entry permit per calendar year. The only other option is a 24 hour transit permit. So you may be asked when you enter the country what your plans are, how long you will have the car in-country, and if you plan to return.

Also, when you leave Panama in your personal vehicle, a special permit from the DIJ (Department of Judicial Investigation) is required, to verify that no import or other taxes are outstanding. Obtaining this document the first time can be a challenge, but once you have it, you're in the clear.

Once you have visited all the required offices and provided all your documents, each Aduana will give you the completed permit. I always check the permit very closely before I leave; anyone can make a mistake, and one wrong digit could be a major hassle down the road. Keep the permit close at hand, along with your passports, so that when you are stopped at a checkpoint, you have it ready to show the official.

Speaking of checkpoints, you will be stopped by police officials along the way. We always roll down all our windows as soon as we stop, so they see we have nothing to hide. I give them a nice smile, say, "Buenos dias," and hand over the car permit and passports. It makes their job a little easier when I have everything ready for them, and they appreciate that, waving us on our way and saying, "Buen viaje" (Have a good trip).

A few final notes

If your vehicle is full of stuff, consider preparing a Cargo List. We were loaded to the gills on our last trip through, and one over-efficient cop asked for a Cargo List, which I didn't have. A couple of hours and a couple hundred dollars later, I gave him a list and he returned my husband's driver's license ... lesson learned.

Proof of Insurance is required in Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. You may be able to purchase an all-inclusive policy from a regional company such as Mapfre, but it may or may not be accepted. You can buy the required short term, low cost insurance at the borders.

I cannot over-emphasize the value of speaking at least some Spanish. Obviously, it makes all the difference in being able to communicate, and you are less likely to be ripped off. Most importantly, it demonstrates your respect for the country and the people you are visiting, and you will be treated with respect in return.

Now, hit the road and have fun!

Note: If you are planning a road trip in any of the countries mentioned here and would like more details on what to expect, you may write to me at linda (at) internationalman dot com.

[If you're going to successfully internationalize - whether assets, income or personally - you'll need some good resources to do it. Join us at the International Man Network and gain access to our library of useful reports on a wide range of diversification topics from moving gold overseas or finding an international broker to getting set up on the ground in a number of different countries around the world. Click here for more information.]

Tags: travel tips, panama,