In short: 16 days – 7 countries – a lost wheel – forgotten documents – ripped bumper – meeting with a cartel guy - 3 days at the border – and finally ‘Pura Vida’!
In long: we left Canada on Christmas day eve, Dec 24th at about 4pm. Having spent the whole day packing last items, the atmosphere was one of anticipation, nervousness and quiet excitement. We’ve been preparing for this moment for the past 6 months and the time has finally come for us to get into our V8 4Runner and drive off to our new home. The snow was coming down with no signs of stopping, but that didn’t scare us. We were ready to leave.
We got to the Sarnia border crossing at about 10pm. The US patrol looked at our passports, asked us where we were going and upon hearing ‘Costa Rica’ wished us luck. Another border patrol guy lazily asked if we knew about ‘a lost wheel on our trailer?’ We thought they were joking, but upon looking, we confirmed that they were right – our trailer was missing the forth wheel!
We passed the US border, the EASIEST CROSSING EVER (whaaaat just happened?!), and drove to the nearest motel. Now, it is Christmas day eve, tomorrow everything will be closed, and we have no wheel. Great start to our journey, what can we say! We ended up calling emergency truckers hoping they could help us, left 20 messages to local shops, and went outside to get food. Of course everything was closed, but the guys at the local fast food shop ended up giving us free fries. We picked up a bottle of Honey Tennessee and came back to share a few Christmas drinks with them, through the drive-thru window. The day ended well, considering we could have been on the side of the road, flipped over or worse.
Next morning we ended up continuing our calls and scored a call back from a local owner of a repair store 100 km away. Guys ended up driving to him alone and picking up bolts and an extra wheel. Turns out, trailer hubs are designed to compress as the bolts are tightened, and need to be tightened after a bit of driving. We ended up learning our lesson and checked everything ten times with the new setup. First problem solved, we are back on the road!
Next couple of days we drove through the nights across US into Mexico. We would sleep in the car for a few hours, and then continue going. We figured we would try to cover as much distance as we could to escape the snowstorm with secret hopes of making it to Costa Rica for New Year’s celebration. We quickly realized that wasn’t possible, but nevertheless we tried. Mexico border crossing was a story. We came to one border to be hustled by border guys to pay for our stuff that we were bringing with us across Mexico – they said we needed to pay taxes, and specifically $150 US, which the border guy just made up on the spot. We thought he wanted a bribe and offered him twenty bucks. He got very offended and said that he gets paid well. Oops. Anyways, we didn’t want to pay, so he said that we can try another border crossing and ‘maybe there we’ll have to pay less’ (go figure!). We ended up driving to another border crossing point, where they told us we needed to go turn right and go through the scanner. We never saw the right turn and just went straight… into Mexico. I had a moment of ‘oh shit’ happen, but no one followed us and we did technically pay all the needed fees, expect the bullshit tax fee. So, long and behold, we came into Mexico!
Fast forward to New Year’s Eve, we made it to the border city between Mexico and Guatemala. There wasn’t enough time to cross, so we decided to spend the night in Mexico. While looking for a hotel, we mistakenly drove into the middle of the city, worst off to the busiest part of it - the night market! Before long, our huge ass trailer hit a local bus and ripped off their bumper and broke the windshield. Shit! Vasilli with his good Spanish and negotiation skills made a deal to pay the owner $250 US, after which all the locals helped us turn around and leave. Phew, that would NOT fly in Canada! Enough excitement for one day – you would think so, but no, we needed more. Found a hotel along the highway, parked the trailer and went downtown to celebrate New Years, the moment we parked we met a local guy, who felt compelled to tell us his story – which is that he is a part of an M-13 cartel, he shoots people (policemen) for a living, he is glad to talk to us because we are different and you know, no big deal. Guys act all cool and as we part ways it hits us - he's for real! Based on what he told us, the horn tattoos on his head and the tear on his face, we had little doubt. At one point I asked him what it feels like to kill, to which he replied that he has no heart, he's a daemon, therefore he doesn’t feel. I could see how hurt and stuck he is in the life that he is living, as he has no way to get out (he would get killed if he wanted to leave), and that made me feel sorry for the people like him. After the experience we ended up getting sketched out and leaving the area where he was, just in case.
Next, we crossed to Guatemala and drove through with no problem. Our next challenge came in El Salvador, when before crossing the border to Honduras, we got an email from the guy at our first hotel that we forgot all our documents at their place – 4.5 hrs away from us. Without those documents, we would not be able to leave the country, as you can’t leave without a car ownership. We ended up paying a local guy $185 USD to drive to that city, get the documents overnight and get them to us the next morning. Close call to being stuck in a pretty dangerous country, but once again, it worked out just fine.
Fast Forward to Costa Rican border – turns out that because El Salvador put locks on our trailer, they assigned us to ‘transito’ status (read commercial trucks). When we came to Nicaragua, they didn’t know what to do with us, so we spent the next 7 hours with the border lady doing some paperwork so we could cross to Nicaragua. That we did, but in CR no one knew what to do with us. On top of that, we came on a Friday afternoon, and the commercial office closed at 4pm. Here’s Vasya’s account on what happened next:
‘We are finally at our last border, Nicaragua -> Costa Rica. It took us about 7 hours to get out of Nicaragua and now we are in the no man's land. Our trailer, once again, gave us a lot of problems. They wanted to open it and take of all things! Of course we didn't feel too passionate about that. Then they offered to do it for us for $80 and we agreed. But, of course, they weren't too passionate about that either. :) So then they offered to NOT do it for us for only $40 and that seemed like the best deal for all. Another hour of hustling and putting stamps on endless copies and we passed the white unmarked envelope to the guy. And as if this was not enough he had the nerve to ask us for a tip, for him, for arranging the bribe in the first place. We politely declined, after some persuasion on his side, and he was pretty pissed.
Entering Costa Rica, the real problems started. The immigration and passports took 5 minutes. The customs... 3 days. Yep. We entered the CR side at 3 pm on Friday and only left on 3 pm Monday! Ouch.
Apparently some key services didn't work on Friday and we were forced to sleep in the car and the border. Waited half a day for the key services on Saturday, only to find out that jefe (the boss) had left for the day at 2pm. They said come back Monday! Wtf?!?! So we are stuck here in no man's land. Can't take the car BC it's tied (figuratively) to our trailer, ATV and bike. And can't pass all that through customs BC we are being considered a commercial vehicle. Made good friends w all the employees and border police. :)
Luckily one kind man, Ameth Gonzales, saw us struggling and took matter into his own hands. He spent two days helping us obtain the necessary stamps and clear customs. And even drove us to the nearest town of La Cruz to spend Sat and Sunday nights, like normal ppl, in a hotel. Even treated us to dinner and drinks, sneakily paying for the bill minutes before we tried to do the same. Picked us up on Monday and spend the whole day dealing w us. After finally clearing customs we took him for lunch, he told us about his life, invited us to his house and his large property at the base of Arenal Volcano. This is when we found out that he was an independent broker, and that he took Monday off to help us, gratis.
Alas, we are now in Costa Rica! Legit (disregarding a few bribes and white lies about our cargo). ’
At the end, I think we all must have good karma, because every time we faced a new challenge – the solutions turned out to be so much easier than could have been otherwise! Losing the wheel made us more aware of the road dangers and what we needed to do before driving for the next 6200km. Hitting the bus and paying a fine right there showed us that the local people and the police CAN BE helpful to each other. Losing our documents made us check everything triple times before leaving. Crossing the border to Nicaragua we made 5 friends who we invited to Chilantro (and who ended up coming to volunteer for us, but that's another story). Crossing Costa Rica we met an amazing man, who showed us what it means to have your cup full so you can share – Ameth spent his time, energy and money to help us out for the sheer purpose of helping. This turned out to be a good sign and introduction to Costa Rica and we can’t wait to see what life brings next on this crazy adventure!
Love and inspiration to all, thank you for your support and we hope to see you on the other side.
To see more, check out www.chilantroresort.com/our-journey