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Trip Report Road trip from California to Panama

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My wife and I are planning on driving from San Jose, California to David, Panama April of 2010. Does anyone have any experience with this sort of thing? What pre-arrangements do we need to make in order to cross borders (visas-should we get them prior to starting the trip or should we expect to get them as we get to the crossings). We have the title to our vehicle (4x4 Ford F-150) and international insurance (Lloyds). Passports are in order. We plan on following Hwy 1 to Cabo San Lucas or La Paz and taking the ferry to Matzatlan and pretty much following the Pacific coast road(s) mainly the PanAm Hwy all the way to Panama. Drive time is not an issue. I plan to take between 30-45 days to make what should be a 10 day drive as we want to sight-see and generally goof off on the way down. Ideas, thoughts and notes are greatly appreciated. I didn't select Panama on the tag because that is my end destination and I am familiar with Costa Rica: however, any tidbits you might have on them would also be appreciated. Thanks in advance for your inputs!

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    A few years ago I enjoyed reading the book "99 Days to Panama" and the authors have made a website to help folks heading south. I believe they left from Texas but parts of their route might help you. Good luck and be sure to tell us all about it.

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    have done something similar from US Gulf Coast

    be sure insurance and paperwork is in order

    expect to pay mordida(small bribes)

    very common in CA/SA your countries

    follow all suggested safety info...

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    Border crossing tips from link above a do not miss...

    Before Entering Mexico

    Bajercito. To drive a car into Mexico, you are required to obtain a temporary vehicle importation form and a sticker for the car from a Banjercito office in the US or at the border. They have offices in Albuquerque, Austin, Dallas, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Francisco and most of the border towns. The border locations charge the smallest processing fee (USD 29), but since Tijuana is such a mess, we decided to do ours Banjercito office in Los Angeles for USD 39. Looks like now you can finally also do it via Internet ( or or, but there is another USD10 online processing fee. Also, if you decide to do it online, remember to allow enough time for them to mail you the sticker and the form.
    In short, this is how it works: you pay the processing fee to the Banjercito and also leave them your credit card information along with a promise to take the vehicle out of the country within the period of 180 days. They "secure" USD 200-400 on your credit card (depending on the year of the vehicle), but would only charge your card in case you failed to report to a Banjercito office and cancel the permit in 180 days. Keep in mind that you need to return the sticker when canceling the permit. Also, before choosing your border crossing point, make sure that there is a Banjercito office in that location. There are 2 Banjercitos in Chiapas: one in Tapachula and one in Ciudad Cuauhtemoc.

    Very important! When getting the temporary vehicle importation form issued, do not forget to tell them that you are TRANSMIGRANTE, i.e. will be entering Mexico from the US and then will continue to Guatemala or Belize. For some reason the paperwork is different for tourists who enter Mexico through the nothern border and leave through the southern (or vice versa).

    Also note that the temporary importation permit is not always required. It depends on the length of your stay in Mexico and the distance from the US border you intend to reach.

    Tourist card. It is possible (and cheaper) to get it at the border, but we got ours in the Mexican Embassy in Los Angeles (if you want to complete the Banjercito procedures in LA, they will first send you to the Embassy for the card). Takes less than an hour but you need to book an appointment in advance. Don't forget to tell them that you are a TRANSMIGRANTE. Consider asking for as many days as possible - we didn't ask for more than 30 and got very close to running out of time. There is no charge for the tourist card, but there is about $22 departure fee, which you will be recommended to pay as you enter the country :-)

    US-Mexico Border Formalities and Practicalities

    Don't forget to leave your I-94 departure card if you have one (non-citizens only). If you choose to cross the border at San Diego - Tijuana, you will see no US immigration office on the way out. After you get to the Mexico side park your car and ask oficers to show you the directions to the US customs. Its about 10 minute walk back.

    If you have not obtained car insurance in the US, you will have to do it at the border. Civil liability insurance is mandatory for driving in Mexico. GNP is the most reputable insurance company in Mexico.

    Overall Mexico's side of the border in Tijuana looks very orderly, with customs, immigration, and Banjercito offices all located in one buiding, clearly marked. Seams that it would have been easier to do all the paperwork here on the spot instead of dealing with the consulate.

    Mexico-Guatemala Border Formalities and Practicalities

    Fast and easy! Just don't forget to cancel your vehicle permit in Banjercito before leaving Mexico.

    - 10 Quetzales (around USD 1.50) for each passport
    - 41 Quetzales (or USD 7) for the mandatory insecticide spray on your vehicle,
    - another 41 Quetzales for the car paperwork (US dollars no longer accepted, there is a bank in the customs territory, but it does not echance currency, so you will have to deal with local boys offering exchange service),
    - 1 quetzal for each photocopy you will be required to make.
    It is a good idea for the owner of the car to have a bunch of photocopies of your driver's license, your passport and the title of your car - you will need at least one of each at every border.
    VERY IMPORTANT!!! Carefully check every number and letter in your car papers (VIN, license plate, make and year of the car, spelling of your name…) before leaving the customs. Guatemalan customs officials seem to be very absent-minded.

    Customs fees. The further from the US, the more likely that the immigration, customs and other governmental agencies will expect payment in local currency, and in most of such cases there will be no ATMs or banks around. When crossing a border by car, have at least USD 50, better USD 100 in smaller bills and find out the official exchange rate from a reliable source (ask one of the immigration officers). At every border, you will see plenty of guys walking around with stacks of local bills and offering currency exchange service. Even though most travel books discourage from using their services to avoid being cheated on, sometimes these guys are the only way to obtain local currency. Of course, you will not get the best deal possible, but knowing the official rate you will be able to bargain and won't let them cheat too much. Also, if you are not too good at math, a tiny calculator won't hurt :)

    Guatemala-El Salvador Border Formalities and Practicalities

    Departing from Guatemala is fast and painless. Entering El Salvador without a vehicle is not a big deal either - all you have to do is fill out a tourist card. Make sure to have an address of some hotel in El Salvador to list it as a place you will supposingly be staying at. Simply putting down "hotels" is not enough :) If you are bringing in a vehicle, you will be required to fill out a bunch of forms, all in Spanish, and then a bunch of copies of the forms you have filled out. Finally, the vehicle will get inspected and, providing they fill find no problem with the car and the documents, you will be allowed to enter El Salvador. None of the customs officials spoke any English. All the border procedures are free of charge, but just as soon as you leave the customs, there is a check point at which they charge you some municipal fee (whatever that is…), USD 5.

    El Salvador - Honduras Border Formalities and Practicalities

    Most importantly, avoid crossing borders on weekends, especially when traveling with your own vehicle. The immigration offices are usually open 7 days a week, so if you are going by bus or crossing on foot, you should not experience any problems either day. However, if you want to bring your vehicle into another country, you will also need to go through customs (aduanas), and all the associated payments will have to be made to the bank, which is closed on Sundays. It is very likely that the same rule applies to all the borders, not just El Salvador-Honduras.

    Expenses: USD 3 per person for Hunduras tourist card and USD 50 for the car (This might be the "weekend special" though, regular fee may be lower).

    Honduras - Nicaragua Border Formalities and Practicalities

    Quiet, quick, clear, and simple - the easiest border crossing so far. No photocopies required, US dollars accepted everywhere. Took us less than half an hour to have both exit and entry paperwork done and get back on the road.

    USD12 for the mandatory car insurance
    USD3 per passport for the exit stamp
    USD7 per passport for the entry stamp
    The customs layout in Las Manos (the border town with Nicaragua) is a bit tricky: you start from the Honduran customs, which is a tiny obscure booth on the left side of the road, well-hidden in a row of multipurpose stands and kiosks, so you have to look very attentively for the sign that says "Aduanas". This is the place where you cancel your Honduran temporary car importation permit. About 50 meters/ 150 feet down the road there is another similar booth where you will be able to purchase car liability insurance ($12 for 30 days, allegedly mandatory). Finally, another 50 meters/ 150 feet further there is a much bigger building with Honduran and Nicaraguan immigration and customs offices. This is where you go to get your passport stamped and your car Nicaraguan car importation issued.

    Nicaragua - Costa Rica Border Formalities and Practicalities:

    Arrive at the border at Peñas Blancas early and have enough time and patience: most likely you will need lots of both.
    Departing from Nicaragua is slightly confusing due to the awkward layout of the customs offices and lack of signage. Start from getting rid of the boarder guides (it's a plague of them at this frontier!) Then, even if you follow the existing signs carefully, you are very likely to get lost and miss the policeman who is supposed to inspect your car documents, verify the VIN and give you a little piece of paper stating that "this car may leave Nicaragua".
    If you find yourself lost, the best way out is to consult the authorized customer assistant, whom you can find inside the emigration office of Nicaragua (look for his desk next to the passport control section, past the entrance to the bank). He speaks fluent English, is very knowledgeable, fast and organized, thus saves you lots of time, and has no obvious expectations to get paid for assistance (although rapidly accepts a tip :)).

    Passport control on the Costa Rican side is fast and straightforward. However, if you are bringing in a vehicle, be ready to spend 3 to 4 hours in a slow-moving line for processing of the temporary importation papers. Vehicle inspection will also be performed.
    We had heard some claims that Costa Rica required all the vehicles to pass smog check (emission check) before entering the country, which turned out to be not true. The only required procedure was fumigation: they sprayed our car with an insecticide (free of charge).
    According to our map of Costa Rica, the customs office of Las Peñas closes at 4PM, but this information may be outdated.

    USD2 per passport for the exit stamp (on the Nicaraguan side)
    USD13 for the 30-day mandatory car insurance (on the Costa Rican side)

    Costa Rica-Panama Border Formalities & Practicalities:

    Don't get alarmed if you see an enormously long line of vehicles when approaching the Sixaola-Guabito customs territory. Although the line looks far from reassuring, most of it consists of commercial traffic waiting only for the signal allowing them to pass through the weird-looking one-way bridge, which connects the two countries. While the traffic from the opposite side has a green light for moving into Costa Rica, the exiting vehicles must form a queue and wait. It may take quite some time (we waited for nearly an hour) because only one truck at a time is allowed on the bridge.

    You can save some time by going to get the exit stamps for both yourself and your vehicle while your car is standing the line for the bridge. The Costa Rican emigration office is on the right hand side, right before the bridge.

    Once you get past the bridge, both "Imigracion" (passport control) and "Aduanas" (car papers) are very straightforward and fast. However, there was one awkward moment for us just past the bizarre bridge on the Panama side. The customs offices of Panama are located immediately after the bridge on the left side of the narrow one-way road. Apparently, you are not allowed to pass the customs office without having your vehicle inspected at the checkpoint, and there is absolutely no place to park! If you stop for inspection, you better be comfortable with ignoring a long line of impatient banana-loaded trucks behind you. However, if you decide to do what you think is more rational and continue driving until you find a parking spot, you may be charged with illegally breaking through the border of Panama:)

    Expenses. The only expense we had at this border was USD 1 for the mandatory car insecticide spray.

    Tip #1: Don't walk straight through the vehicle spraying system, which looks like a big black gate, and, for some reason, it is truly tempting to walk through it! The system automatically starts spraying any moving object. If you get sprayed, all your pet insects will instantly die… providing you have any, of course :))

    Tip #2: At the Panama customs, the border-guide like looking people wearing baseball caps with big white letters "DGA" are in fact the customs officers! DGA stands for "Direcion General de Aduanas" (Customs Authority), and it is in your best interest to cooperate, if you get approached by one of those guys. (Don't chase him away like we did thinking it was just another annoying border guide or car guard :))

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    Hello Everyone, and WOW, special thanks to qwovadis, lots of great information. I will certainly look at the 99daystopanama website as well. trip to Panama is one-way. My wife is from Panama and I'm starting a new business there. We have property in the Chiriqui Highlands and are building our house there. Again, thanks for the advice and I will post a story of this adventure when its complete in May/June 2010.

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    This was my question-Safety!
    I went to Oaxoaca and got ripped off of everything in
    San Fillippi-sorry bout' the spelling....
    All they left was a honey-bear, and broken locks..:(
    I'm glad I wasn't inside the camper when they came in a group. Can you bring a big dog? What forms of weapons are permitted?-
    Be safe-Vaya Con Dios!

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    Think about El Salvador smallest of the CA countries not many other travellers and great waves if you like to Surf there are some Australians that have a low budget hostal on the beach of San Diego(no spanish need there and quite a party from what I have heard) its call hostal El Roble do a search I think they have a blog site. Anyway just a biased thought as I live here but anyway here is some more information about this small but very diverse country.

    Buses are your best bet in most of Central America, most use the local buses but if you need to travel fast there are 3 central amercian bus lines that provide direct similuxury buses between souther mexico and San Jose Costa Rica. They are not really not very expensive for the service they provide, you can find information on their web at, kingquality and buses el sol. When travelling in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaruagua and Hodurous you will be given only 90 for the 4 countries and border crossing are fairly easy policy and price varies if you need to get an extention for more days. From what I have heard from other travelers the only contry that respects fully the C4 agreement is El Salvador where you won´t charged when entering or leaving the country the other 3 contries will charge enrty and exit fees of between $3-$7.
    I have been living in El Salvador for now over 15 years and for the past 7 years I have become very involved in local tourism(I am the current president of our local tourism association here in Suchitoto) The following is a list of places on that I consider must visit if travelling in El Salvador, the list is in no particular order.
    1) the beaches of the west coast great for surfing or just hanging out, for more night life Playa El Tunco and a little more laid back Playa El Zonte.
    2) Playa Los Cobonos, there now is a new inexpensive hostel run by a young salvadorean woman Karla(PM me for the phone)
    3) Still in the west the ruta de flores and especially Ataco and Juayua but have many lodging options, coffee tours, waterfalls. Ziplines and dune buggy tours are a kick and can be found in Apaneca
    4) Tacuba and the imposible park, check out the site for imposible tours with manolo and his parents hostel. Most travelers I have talked to have loved his tours.
    5) In the north La Palma, San Ignacio and the highlands
    6) Suchitoto(where I live) great to just kick back and relax. There are now 5 hostels all under $20 two that charge $7 and hotels up to $100+ Civil war hikes or hourseback rides on the Guazapa mountains, the El Necio Bar even a disco on fridays and Saturdays
    7) Alegria, came in first as El Salvadors best tourist city, not a lot to do there but it is a pretty town in the mountains, great views and a nice crater lake. There are only two hostels
    8) Perquin and northern Morazan, war museun, masacre site at El Mozote and natural reserve area Rio Sapo. I always recommend a tour with trhe guides at Prodetur(booth in Perquin and main office about 10 minutes out of town) they charge between $15-20 for a full day tour on local buses to museum, Mozote and rio sapo
    Well that should give you a good start you can find links to most every thing in El Salvador at [url=] [/url]and for more information about Suchitoto visit the oficial site at [url=] [/url]or unofficial site at [url=][/url]
    Ok have a great trip and if you need more information about El Salvador feel free to drop me an email.
    Robert Broz "El Gringo" in Suchitoto

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    hi E_MENDIOLA...
    was wondering if u were planning to keep ur car when u get to panama and pay for importation or sell it. i am planning on driving from panama back up to the states and was looking for a US registered car to buy for the trip so i can sell it when i get back there and not have to pay importation. it seems a lot of people r driving down and selling thier cars when they get here and have to pay something like 15% of the value of the car to import it. this wouldn't be necessary if the car was then driven back to the US.
    let me know what u think.
    good luck with ur journey.

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    sophiealexi ,

    Are you still around looking for a car?

    I just got in to Panama City during Semana Santa and I am looking to sell my California 1990 Toyota 4Runner. It has had the engine replaced in San Francisco due to a head gasket recall.

    If interested, please email me!

    andremello_[email protected]


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    How was the experience with the trip? I want to do it, Im from Panama, and my stepfather tried to do it by 1996 and he couldn't

    I would like to know all those fact by someone who had that experience... Lissi_[email protected]

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