Have Your Papers In Order!
Everything I’d heard and read about the Costa Rica border crossing at Peñas Blancas had been negative. Perhaps only overshadowed in notoriety by the Guatemalan/ El Salvador crossing which I unfortunately missed. Weekend border crossings are always a bit sketchy. Stories of long lunches, closed offices and under staffing fill the pages of internet travelogues. But riding into Peñas Blancas on an early Saturday afternoon, I breezed through Nicaraguan immigration and customs and then their Costa Rican counter parts in less than an hour. Not once did I have to wait in line. And interestingly enough this border crossing was only the second time I had to have my motorcycle fumigated at a cost of $2.50. Of course, there was the usual running around with documents, but never was I harassed and swarmed upon my “tramitadores”.
So with immigration documents and temporary vehicle import permit in hand I cruised down the highway towards Liberia through the Costa Rican highland province of Guanacaste. With grassy savannah flatlands leading to the Pacific Ocean to the west and ominous mountains and volcanic peaks to the east I breathed easy for making another border crossing and excited to revel in the culture of a new country. Of course, then again there’s not much left of any distinct Costa Rica culture, but the Guanacaste province with its miles of cattle pastures certainly owns up to a cowboy (called saberno) culture that perhaps is good and bad. Once Guanacaste was a vast dry tropical forest. But that forest has given away to the miles of pasture and ranches I pass on my way to Liberia.
Just an hour outside the border crossing I am stopped by the Costa Rican police who ask to see my passport, license and temporary vehicle import permit. The two cops start ogling my motorcycle. The younger junior officer with thick dark hair and an angular face peers through his cliché Ray-Ban style sunglasses at my GPS. Then he goes back to scanning my paper. Pointing to my tank panniers he asks to take a peek. Before I can finish zipping open the bag he’s pointing and asking about things. I pull out the 1.5L Sigg fuel bottle. This results in a conversation about fuel capacity and range. He finally walks behind the motorcycle and then points me to the vehicle permit.
“No placa,” his index finger sits squarely on a box on my form that simply has an “x” typewritten in it. He explains that the license plate number must be on the form. “Hay problema,” he says. I explain to him that the people at the border simply forget to type it in. I tell him to check the VIN number, walking to the front of the bike and pointing to the BMW plaque where the VIN number is etched. He verified that the number matches the import permit but insists that I need to have the plate number.
His superior walks over and they have me pull my motorcycle off the road because the traffic of speeding busses and cars is shaking me and my motorcycle. I finally pull out my California vehicle registration which matches the VIN number with the plate number. HE doesn’t care. More questions are asked and they just stand around holding my passport and documents. At this point I’m sure they’re fishing for a bribe, figuring if they delay me long enough I’d try to buy my way out of the problem. But that wasn’t going to happen. In this case there was not a thing I had done wrong. No speeding. No traffic violation. The older and more svelte officer started chatting. There was a problem.
Finally, I agreed to go back to the border and have the documents corrected. This wasn’t much of a solution for these guys. Finally I asked if I could take their photos. The younger officer said no I should get a shot of the superior officer. The guy walks over to the bike and poses nicely for me. We all laugh, they hand the documents back to me and tell me to be careful, not ride at night and when in the capital city of San Jose to watch my things.
The whole process was fun but hanging with these cops ate up nearly an hour of my daylight. I begin to wonder how far I’ll get before dark.
Liberia sits at the crossroads of major routes south toward San Jose and west toward the increasingly ex-pat populated Pacific Ocean beaches and the Nicoya peninsula. As I fill Doc with gas and dusk settling in, I decide to stay in Liberia for the night. But a huge Christmas parade featuring students from elementary school to university has all the roads through town blocked off. I try scooting by some cones but a cop waving his arms has me turn around. I settle for a nice hotel on the highway. They let me park the bike inside the pool area and I take in the parade and town by foot.
Photos: (1) Doc sits in a pool of fumigation liquid, legal and ready to enter Costa Rica; (2) Leaving Nicaragua; (3) Cop Cesar lets me go after his pic is taken; (4,5 & 6) Photos from the xmas parade 12/3/05 in Liberia, Costa Rica.