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The Bureacracy of Lingering Some More


New Piston
New Pistons.  Fixing Betsy's Nearly Catastrophic Engine Problems Ran Me Up to My Visa Limit
Almost 3 months ago, I found myself in Guatemala, nearing the end of my visa. Extending it was a bit of a hassle but that was nothing like what I experienced between Nicaragua and Costa Rica today.

When I reached Nicaragua a couple weeks ago, I thought I would spend a few days exploring southern Nicaragua, leaving me with plenty of time on my CA-IV visa to return to México via Honduras and Guatemala.  Nicaragua was to be the southern-most country on my trip.  Unfortunately, when I arrived, Betsy was not doing well.  I spent two weeks working with a mechanic to replace pistons, bearings, rings, pre-cups and some cracks in the head.  Once that was complete, I had only 3 days left on my visa.  I needed a new plan.

I decided to do the standard Nicaragua -> Costa Rica visa run.  This is a short trip that involves stamping out of Nicaragua, walking to Costa Rica, stamping in, drinking a beer in the conveniently located bar in the immigration building, stamping out of Costa Rica and walking back to Nicaragua.  This is a perfectly legitimate way to restart a CA-IV visa as Nicaragua has no restrictions around how long you have to stay in Costa Rica.

However, having a car to import can change everything.

As I drove towards the border, I was surrounded by touts.  It wasn't as bad as the crowd of people chasing me down the highway in Honduras; these guys were easily dodged with a few maneuvers between the rows of parked semi-trucks.

In the Nicaraguan immigration area, I made a critical mistake.  A customs official in a DGA shirt saw my foreign plates and asked to see my papers.  He scribbled on my import permit and told me I couldn't leave Nicaragua without also canceling my vehicle permit.  I had 2 weeks remaining so I didn't think this would be a problem.  I'd just have to pay to re-import it after that delicious beer in Costa Rica.  If I could do it again, I'd dodge/deflect this guy.

In the line to exit Nicaragua, a young woman from the states was arguing with the immigration official over the $2 exit tax.  I appreciated this as it gave me the opportunity to share knowing looks with the official.  He handled my paperwork quickly as we had bonded over our shared distaste for annoying idiots.

I then set off to trek through the dusty parking lot and the buses and semi-trucks to run the 200m gauntlet to the Costa Rican border.  At this point I was still confident in my plan as I didn't know I was already doomed.  I dodged the police officers that I'd heard would randomly harass tourists on visa runs and made it to Costa Rican immigration where they handled my entry without issues.  I then passed my luggage through the x-ray machine.  Someone was making sure luggage went in, although nobody was actually looking at the monitor to see the results.  This is actually my favorite form of security theater; it's honest in that they don't bother to pretend that it's important.

I then walked into the bar and spent some Córdobas on a delicious Costa Rican Pilsener before walking over to the exit line.  I spent 10 minutes in Costa Rica altogether.

On the way back to Nicaragua, I almost dodged the white-shirted immigration officials lounging in a shack next to a long line of semi-trucks.  The guy who chased after me noticed that my passport had Costa Rican entry and exit stamps with the same date and decided to try and shake me down.  He called for the jefa, who didn't bother to leave her chair, so he led me to the shack.  She looked at the passport and asked me in Spanish, "How long were you in Costa Rica?"  I knew there was no requirement to spend more than 10 minutes in Costa Rica and I'd already decided I would pay no bribes.  I smiled and gave her a dumb look and stumbled over some words in English and Spanish.  She asked again, "How many hours did you spend in Costa Rica?"  I repeated back in Spanish, "the hour?" and then switched to English while I gave her the time and showed it to her on my cell phone.  She turned to the first official and laughed, saying, "He doesn't understand!  He thinks I want to know what time it is."  Then she handed my passport back and told me that all I had to do was buy the first guy a beer.  Then it was my turn to laugh as I left the shack and continued walking up to Nicaragua.  They didn't follow me or whistle so I guess we were all happy playing the bribery game.

Back in Nicaragua, I re-entered immigration, paying the $1 municipal "we take advantage of people at the border" tax required before entering the immigration building.  There, the official cracked a joke about my day's travel but had no issue stamping me back in.

I then walked back around to customs and sat in front of the same woman I'd sat with before when I canceled the vehicle permit.  She didn't recognize me.  She asked me for my customs declaration form, which I didn't have, because apparently that form is given out somewhere further down the road.  While I was looking for it, however, she saw my canceled permit from earlier, put two and two together and told me that I couldn't come back in because technically the truck had never gone out.  Even though my permit still had 2 weeks and I hadn't overstayed, she decided that my truck had to spend 72 hours in Costa Rica.  I tried to get her to change her mind but all she did was call the boss.  He agreed with her, but I followed him back outside to try and work some charm.  We negotiated my truck's stay in Costa Rica down to 12 hours but he wouldn't budge beyond that.  12 hours worked for him because, as he said, "I won't be working tomorrow so you should have no problems."  Asshole.

I then went back around to the immigration exit line, dodging the municipal tax lady who was busy talking on the phone, and was stamped back out of Nicaragua for the second time today, got in the truck and drove to Costa Rica via the automated fumigation machine.  I then walked back to the immigration window and asked to be stamped back into Costa Rica.  They decided instead, however, to just cancel my previous exit. 

I then went to the first customs booth and had my paperwork started, but to finish it, I had to walk 200m down the road to the other customs booth, buy insurance, make photocopies and walk back to the first booth.  The guy there completed my form and asked to see what I was carrying in the vehicle.  He didn't bother checking the VIN or searching through my gear; he simply said "hey, that's very practical" before sending me back to the second customs booth again to receive my permit.  Here I learned that immigration hadn't canceled my exit, they'd canceled my entrance.  Now it looked like I had left Costa Rica without ever entering and customs wouldn't issue the permit until I went back to immigration again.  There I showed them the mistake, to which they laughed and made a joke about using up all the pages in my passport as they stamped me back in.

I then went back down the road to the second customs booth where I finally received my import permit and was allowed to leave the border area and try to find a place to stay.  All told I spent 6 hours going back and forth between the two countries.

I would have had no issues doing the visa run if I'd just left the truck out of it.  Despite being stamped into my passport, nobody in Nicaraguan immigration looked at, asked about, or updated the stamp in my passport.

There is a silver lining, however.  La Cruz, Costa Rica is a beautiful spot just a short drive from the border.  From what I can tell, Costa Rica is a fantastic place - beautiful landscapes, friendly people and none of the corruption, filth and environmental mismanagement that makes Nicaragua such a difficult place to spend time in.


  1. Sounds like quite the adventure. I dig the new piston ;-)

  2. Very good article. I will be going through many of these issues as well..

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