Picture of the day:
(click to enlarge)

Grrr... go away!


Tips for the Road

Border Crossings

Carnet de Passage or Libreta de Pasos por Aduana

We did not have them and were not asked for them at any of the borders we crossed.

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 (www.banjercito.com.mx or www.aduanas.gob.mx or www.serviciosdecalidad.gob.mx), 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.
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 :))

Roads of Mexico

General Observations
Most of the major cities in Mexico are connected by toll roads. There is road construction going on quite often, but roadwork does not hinder the driving conditions, which are typically excellent on all toll roads. Toll roads are most frequently divided 4-laners, with on-and-off ramps, and you have much slighter chances of running into cattle in the middle of the road, which means you can speed up. Expect to pay USD 8-10 per 100km or USD 10-13 per 100 miles (more for RVs) on average. Some toll booths ("casetas") are more expensive than others, so if you have a chance to talk to the locals, they will tell you at which point it is best to enter the toll road in order to avoid the expensive toll booth - all you have to do is take the parallel free route for several kilometers until you reach a cheaper toll road entrance. Toll rates are always published in front of the booths and are the same for locals and foreigners - there is no way you could be cheated on. Needless to say, credit cards are not accepted. Speed limit on toll roads is usually 110 km/h or 70 mph; sometimes 90km/h or 55mph, but rarely you will have to deal with highway patrol (assuming you do not start acting crazy). We had no problems with the Mexican police whatsoever, throughout the entire trip.

Some of the free roads are also well paved with relatively light traffic because most of the trucks opt for much faster toll roads. However, most free roads will wind up and down though high mountains, featuring lots of sharp curves, sometimes unmarked, and crossing numerous villages where speed is limited to 40-50km/h or 25-30mph. Most of them either have no shoulders at all, or they are quite steep. The quality of pavement ranges from good to very poor with plenty of potholes, some of them very deep, what becomes a huge problem if you have to drive after dark. It also happens very often that you get stuck behind a slow truck crawling uphill and have no chance to take over for half an hour or so because of the winding road and heavy oncoming traffic.

Considering that the free roads are usually longer, and a vehicle burns more gas while constantly accelerating and decelerating or driving though hilly areas in a low gear, we have come to the mathematical conclusion that the savings achieved by taking free roads are marginal - perhaps USD 4 per 100km or USD 5 per 100 miles. Besides, your driving time is likely to increase by 50-100 percent, as the average speed on free roads is about 40-50 km/h or 25-30mph. On the other hand, the free roads are always much more scenic and interesting, while the tall roads are quite boring. At the end of the day, it's all about the time you have and are willing to spend on the road.

One exception: free roads on the Yukatan Peninsula are very well paved, straight and the traffic is comparatively light. It gets slightly worse in Campeche, but overall Yukatan is a pleasure to drive.

Watch out for loose animals at all times, on all the roads - toll roads are not an exemption. We saw cows and donkeys on major highways, munching on the center divider grass or slowly crossing the road. Once we saw two donkeys mourning over a killed donkey in the middle of a major road leading to Mexico City. On local roads that go through towns and villages loose cattle is abundant.

Another nasty thing you will have to deal with is "Reductores de Velocidad" or "Topes" (speed bumps). You will come across at least two of them in every village: one at the entrance and the other one at the exit - at least! If a town is bigger, there will be lots of them. They are usually clearly indicated by road signs, but there are exceptions. Sometimes they are not marked at all, not even painted. The general advise, therefore, is: always slow down when approaching any kind of settlement and do not immediately accelerate after you think you have left the town behind. Otherwise you will be soon supporting local economy by getting an expensive suspension repair.

Big Cities
Congestion, constant traffic jams, crazy taxi drivers, and smog, smog, smog… Those who have lived in California will definitely appreciate its emission laws. Fewer cars in a medium-sized Mexican city stink up the air much worse than the rush hour traffic in Los Angeles.

"Day Without Car" ("Hoy No Circula") program in the Distrito Federal (Mexico City and vicinities). In an effort to reduce air pollution, all vehicles, including those carrying foreign license plates, are subject to hefty fines for the violation of "driving restrictions" rule. Vehicles may not be driven on certain weekdays based on the last digit of the license plate:
Monday: 5 and 6
Tuesday: 7 and 8
Wednesday: 3 and 4
Thursday: 1 and 2
Friday: 9 and 0.
No restrictions apply from 11PM to 5AM and on Saturdays & Sundays.
For most current info, visit www.sima.org.mx

Drivers Courtesy
The drivers in Mexico are always in a hurry, no matter if it is a big city or a small town. Seems like it is obligatory in Mexico to constantly change lanes, try squeezing though tiniest gaps among cars, and use the horn as often as you can (almost like in Lithuania! :)) They start into intersections while the traffic light is still red. If you happen to be the one in front, you get half of a second to start moving when the green light comes on, otherwise you will surely be honked at. General advice - just ignore it all. Try to drive like the locals do: if you need to make a lane change in a jammed street, simply stick your hand out of the window and wave at other drivers to give way. Establishing eye contact and "asking" for permission to squeeze in also helps a lot - the people in Mexico are typically very friendly! On narrow winding roads, slow vehicles have no culture to turn out and let the 10-vehicle "tail" pass by so get armed with patience. The slowest vehicles set the pace :)

All the gas stations in Mexico are owned by Pemex. They are plentiful and their green signs can be clearly seen from far away. They sell octane gasoline and diesel. Prices are the same throughout the country - USD 0.62 per liter or USD 2.30 per gallon, but may be up to 20 percent higher in Baja. All gas stations have full service: an attendant will fill up you tank and take the payment. The greatest majority of gas stations accept cash only, but in Mexico City we saw several signs "We take credit cards!". US dollars are accepted in Baja California (maybe elsewhere as well, we just didn't try), but the conversion rate is determined by the attendant, so it is always a much better idea to pay in Mexican pesos.

You will come across plenty of these, especially in Baja and when crossing borders of the states of Mexico. We noticed two kinds of checkpoints: "Militar" and "Fitozoosanitaria". In most cases, they are nothing to worry about: they are either closed, or smiling soldiers will simply signal you to proceed. We were asked to stop only 3 or 4 times. The first time was something to remember - it happened in Baja, when entering Baja California Sur. The inspector asked us if were carrying any vegetables or fruit in the car. We had plenty, all of them in the cooler, but did not want them confiscated, so we tried our luck: "No, haven't got any". The inspector glanced inside the car and asked again: "What's in the cooler?". - "Just beer". - "Gracias, buen viaje!". What a relief it was!! :)) Summing up, looks like having fresh fruit and veggies in the car is not a very idea, especially if you are crossing Mexican state borders.

We had another military inspection at the entry of the state of Tobasco. The soldiers asked us to step out of the car, looked inside the car, under the seats and asked to open the trunk, and gave us recommendations of what to see in the area :) The other 2 times we got stopped were identical - no problems whatsoever.

There is plenty of highway patrol and military police on the roads of Mexico, especially in big cities. All the police vehicles are clearly marked, style similar to the US, very easy to identify. In major cities, we saw policemen at nearly every intersection, energetically blowing their whistles and waving at the traffic. Sometimes their commands are opposite to those of the traffic lights. Guess their official purpose is to facilitate the traffic flow during rush hours, but in reality all they do is create an even bigger noise and chaos :)

We were speeding sometimes, mainly in order to blend in with the locals who tend to always exceed the posted speed limit by at least 10-20km/h or 7-12mph. We had no problems with the Mexican police at all, but we noticed police cars with radars and vehicles pulled over. Strangely locals seam to completely ignore village and roadwork related speed limits going at

Another observation, Mexicans drivers DO NOT stop at STOP (ALTO) signs, they merely slow down somewhat, sometimes… Red traffic lights are also sometimes completely ignored. All in all, our conclusion is that trouble with the Mexican police is very unlikely, but always watch out for fellow Mexican drivers :)

Little tip from Morelia: a guy waving a torch at an intersection is not signaling to go through the red light. He is working there, and a tip is, of course, expected :)

Vehicle Insurance
Civil liability insurance is mandatory to drive in Mexico. The best place to purchase it is from an agent abroad (like AAA in the US) or at the borders. AAA has a contract with GNP, the most reputable insurance company in Mexico.
Extending the insurance in Mexico, if you needed to, may be a headache. AMA (AAA equivalent) does not do it (although they said they planned to start doing it in March), so the best way is to try and look for a GNP office and talk to an agent directly. You may get lucky or not - in the GNP office in Puebla we were sent from one clerk to another because none of them knew how to do traveler's car insurance. Finally one nice agent helped us to renew our car insurance. She said it was her first time dealing with insurance of this kind.

Insurance with GNP costs about USD 4 per day, plus there is a USD 20 issuing fee. If in doubt, better purchase more days before you start your trip, instead of going through lots of hassle and ending up paying another USD 20 issuing fee.

Roads of Guatemala

General Observations
We cannot provide extensive information about Guatemalan roads as we spent only 2 days in the country. We crossed Guatemala via CA-2 (the Pacific Highway), a newer and straighter road than the old CA-1 (the Pan-American Highway). CA-2 is also preferred by commercial traffic, therefore, until the town of Escuintla the traffic is really heavy. However, from Escuintla most of the traffic turns toward Guatemala City, and there is almost no more villages or cars along the remaining stretch of CA-2, until the border of El Salvador.


USD 0.79 per liter or USD 2.99 per gallon
As soon as you leave Mexico, purchasing gas becomes slightly more complicated. You will usually find several kinds of fuel labeled by meaningless names, like Regular, Super, Super Pro, Super Pro Plus, Super Duper (kidding), Esso 3000, Esso 5000, V-Power 8000, and so on, and so forth… However, octane rating is NEVER displayed, and if you ask the attendants, they either will not understand the question, or will not know the answer. On rare occasions, the attendant may know if the fuel is leaded or unleaded ("com plomo" or "sin plomo") and sometimes there is a label on the pump that says "sin plomo", but these indications are so irregular that very likely you will end up purchasing the more expensive kind of gas just to be on the safe side.

Diesel is widely available in all countries.

Vehicle Insurance

Looks like car insurance is optional. At least we did not notice any insurance agents or offices in the customs territory, and did not buy any insurance for our car.

Roads of El Salvador

General Observations

A very nice change after Mexico. All the roads in El Salvador are free and well maintained, but you have to look really hard for road signs.

USD 0.81 per liter or USD 3.06 per gallon

We have seen a few police checkpoints and have been stopped once, not far from the border, just for a standard document check.

Watch out for loose animals at all times, especially on rural roads (which means the majority of roads :)).

Vehicle Insurance
Again, there were no insurance agents or offices in the customs territory, which is the best indicator that vehicle insurance is not mandatory.

Roads of Honduras

General Observations
The major roads leading to the capital are more or less okay, but watch out for impressive potholes and unmarked speed bumps throughout the rest of the country. There are almost no speed limit signs on any roads in Honduras. This either means that you can drive as fast as you please, or that they know you won't be able to drive too fast anyway navigating among the endless natural obstacles, then why even bother putting up the speed limit signs…

USD 0.91 per liter or USD 3.46 per gallon

In Honduras, we noticed two types of checkpoints: national police and some sort of "inspectors". The checkpoints are clearly marked by road signs, bright orange cones and a speed bump. The real officials always wear uniforms and, in case of the national police, big guns as well. The inspectors mostly deal with commercial traffic and their cargo, and shouldn't give you any trouble. The national police, however, will want to scrutinize all your documents, including the drivers license, passport, entry stamp, tourist card, vehicle importation documents, the title and even VIN… unless they are not in the mood to find something that could cost you a dollar or two :) If they find something and start pretending to want to take your drivers license to the police office, all they really want is that you offer to pay "multa de instante", the type of fine which is typically very low, and the money quickly disappears in the police officer's pocket (in our case it was USD 2.50 for "homemade" license plate :)).

Same old loose animal problem all over the country, especially on local roads, be alert at all times. Also people, especially schoolchildren, tend to walk on the highways, while little children like playing in the middle of the street.

Vehicle Insurance
Seems to be optional. There were no insurance agents or offices in the customs territory, and we were not asked for it when stopped by the police.

Roads of Nicaragua

General Observations
Generally, the roads in Nica are very good, with just a few exceptions. Road 26 from San Isidro to Leon is in a terrible condition, while the road from Lovago to San Carlos (on the eastern side of Lago Nicaragua) does not deserve to be called a road at all!! If you dare go, get ready for a 130km/ 82 mile- journey through hell, at the average speed of 15km/ 10 mph! It starts at Lovago as a decent dirt road, and within a few miles changes to an extremely rough and rocky something…. According to the locals, a new road to San Carlos is scheduled to be built in 2008, but until then taking a plane or a boat from Granada are the only sensible options.

In contrary to the data of our ITMB Nicaragua map, there seams to be an overland route from San Carlos straight into Costa Rica. We asked around, and most of the locals confirmed that it was passable by car.

USD 0.94 per liter or USD 3.57 per gallon.

Loose animals are not as much of a problem as loose cyclists and children :), especially in the dark.

Vehicle Insurance
In Nicaragua, car insurance is mandatory. You will be able to purchase it at the border for USD 12 per month.

Roads of Costa Rica

General Observations
Most roads in Costa Rica fall into the following categories: bad, very bad, and atrocious, although some people say that we should wait till Bolivia before making such statements :). You'll find plenty of unpaved routes, and paved ones will have untold number of pot holes. Roads leading to Playa Tamarindo are of the "very bad" kind and the stretch from Tilaran to Monteverde easily qualifies for "atrocious".

It is customary to warn fellow drivers about police by flashing headlights.

USD 0.93 per liter or USD 3.52 per gallon.

Due to the poor condition of the roads, driving at night is very tiring and potentially damadging to your vehicle.

Vehicle Insurance
In Costa Rica, car insurance is mandatory. You will have to purchase it at the border for USD 13 per month.

Roads of Panama

General Observations
Panama could easily be called a country of one road :) When you look at a larger scale map, it surely appears so: the Panamericana with several smaller routes branching off. Most roads are paved and in good condition.

USD 0.91 per liter or USD 3.45 per gallon.

Vehicle Insurance
Seems to be optional. There were no insurance agents or offices in the customs territory, and we were not asked for it when stopped by the police.

Roads of Ecuador

General Observations
Very nice! All the roads we took were paved and in good condition. There are quite a few toll roads, but the typical fee is only $1 or less. If you want to see wonderful views of the mountains, hit the road early in the morning because in the afternoon the view becomes obstructed by haze and clouds.

USD 0.55 per liter or USD 2.07 per gallon (diesel is about 50% cheaper!)

There seem to be no regulations regarding vehicle lights. Truck drivers engarland all sides of their vehicles with various color lights. If you drive at night and see an alien spaceship approaching, it is most likely an Ecuadorian truck :) This is a bit disorientating and gets rather annoying because you cannot really tell whether you are looking at the front or the back of the vehicle!

Vehicle Insurance
Seems to be optional. There were no insurance agents or offices in the customs territory, and we were not asked for it when stopped by the police.

Roads of Peru

General Observations
Paved roads are great, just wish there were more of them! Our detours to Cordillera Blanca and Tres Cruces were very bouncy and dusty. Most main roads are paid, and the average fee is $2.50 for a stretch of 100-200km (60-120 miles). In the northern part of the country toll is collected only in one direction, so if you are southbound, you will have a free ride till Lima! Do not throw away the receipts immediately because sometimes you will pay for the entire road at the first toll booth, and all the following booths will only want to see and stamp your receipt.

Make sure your car is in a good shape and ready for high altitudes: air filter is clean, radiator is not leaking, cooling fluid is fresh, etc. Most of the time you will be driving at the altiude of 3000-4000m (9900-13000 feet), some passes rising to nearly 5000m (16500 feet). If the engine temperature starts rising, try the old tricks: AC off, heating on, all windows open in if gets to hot inside the car. This his will draw extra heat from the engine and help it cool off.

The police is everywhere, especially in the north! Yo will see patrol cars even in tiniest villages, usually one at the entrance to the "zona urbana" and one at the exit. Mind the speed limit, which in urban zones drops down to 35km/h (22mph) or even 25km/h (15mph), from the usual 80km/h (50mph). Naturally, the police expect your late reaction to the speed limit sign :). If you ever want to go faster, hide behind a bus. They somehow know all the ticket traps as well police-free stretches.

USD 1.13 per liter or USD 4.30 per gallon. For some reason gasoline in Peru has an extremely strong odor, which may even make you think that the fuel system of your car has developed a leak.

There are many loose animals on the roads: sheep, alpacas, llamas, cows, pigs, dogs, etc. Small kids play right in the middle of the roads and are not paying much attention to the traffic.

Vehicle Insurance
Seems to be optional. There were no insurance agents or offices in the customs territory, and we were not asked for it when stopped by the police.

Roads of Bolivia

General Observations
The main roads are very nicely paved, but if you want to see more than Copacabana, La Paz and Potosi then get ready for dusty gravel roads. Salar de Uyuni is easily accessible via decent gravel roads from Potosi through Oruro, but do not attempt to continue to Chile via Laguna Verde if you are not driving a high clearance 4WD vehicle! There are plentiful stretches with very deep tracks, sand, rocks or no road at all. The other famous road, La Carretera de la Muerte from La Paz to Las Yungas (a.k.a the Death Road or the Most Dangerous Road in the World) is not as scary as it sounds and is passable for any kind of vehicle, but you will feel much better if you drive a 4WD.

Speed limit in urban areas is usually 35km/h (22mph), but most drivers will cut through villages without even slowing down. The police is rarely seen outside major cities, and we have not noticed a single partol car checking speed with a radar. There are occasional police checkpoints, but it seems that their only task is to register all the passing drivers in some sort of a log book.

La Paz has the worst driving culture that we have seen so far. Nobody stops or even slows down at STOP signs, red lights are frequently ignored, and the police does not seem to care about what is happening on the streets. In the center of the city the traffic is very heavy, and driving looks more like a fight for survival than an organized vehicle flow. The drivers of colectivos (minibuses) are especially vicious, and couldn't-care-less pedestrians can jump in front of the car anywhere, at any time.

Special local rules apply on steep and narrow mountain roads. Uphill traffic has the right of way and always clings to the mountain side of the road. Vehicles going downhill must come close to the edge (of an abyss!) and yield to the ones going uphill.

USD 0.47 per liter or USD 1.79 per gallon. There is just one kind of gasoline, and nobody knows its octane rating.

Vehicle Insurance
Seems to be required, but is not strictly enforced. You will not be required to purchase it at the border, but the police sometimes want to see it. If you are planning to go Coroico (Las Yungas) via Carretera de la Muerte (the Most Dangerous Road in the World), you will not get past the police checkpoint without a proof of insurance. Showing some sort of car insurance document (e.g. AAA, and say that it is international) should get you through the checkpoint.

If you want to play by the rules, you should purchase liability insurance called SOAT. It is valid for 1 year and costs $40. We heard that you may get it significantly cheaper if you find an agent who works with several insurance companies. There is one broker company on the 9th floor of the Building Mariscal Ayacucho, located in the center of La Paz, not far from the main Post Office (all the locals know the building). Note: It is difficult to purchase SOAT on Fridays, because insurance companies assume that such clients need coverage specifically for a weekend trip to Las Yungas via the Death Road. Get it a couple of days in advance and better do not mention at all that you are planning a trip to Las Yungas.

Choice of Vehicle

General Observations
Any type of car should do the job, if you intent to drive only on major highways. However, if you are going to explore destinations further off the beaten track, a vehicle with high clearance is a must. Off the main roads, there are plenty of interesting places inaccessible by a regular passenger car. We couldn't say that a 4x4 was absolutely necessary, but several times we were glad that we had it, namely in Cordillera Blanca, Salari de Uyuni, and road from La Paz to Yungas.

Mexico. Here you can find almost any existing make and model. The most popular ones are Toyota, Nissan, Isuzu, Ford and Chevy. Volkswagen, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Honda, KIA, Hyundai are also plentiful.

Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras & Nicaragua. The further down south you go, the less variety remains. Almost every second car on the road is a Toyota, just like their ad in Honduras says: "This is the Toyota territory!" You can see an occasional Nissan, Isuzu, Mitsubishi, Hyundai or KIA.

Therefore, Toyota may be the safest choice in terms of spare parts. Yet, 4Runner or RAV4 models, which are very popular in the USA, are quite rare in Central America. 90 percent of Toyotas in the region are Hilux pickup trucks with diesel engines. Landcruiser models can be spotted once in a while.

There are almost no Honda SUVs in Central America, only light passenger cars and an occasional CR-V. There are no Mazda SUVs either, pickup trucks only. Isuzu pickup trucks are very popular but Rodeo or Trooper model SUVs are hard to find. Nissan Pathfinders is not extremely popular, but we noticed them in every country. Mitsubishi Montero (not Sport) can also be seen, slightly less frequently than Nissan.

Lada Niva, a small 2-door Russian-made 4x4 SUV, can be seen in El Salvador and is plentiful in Nicaragua.

Costa Rica & Panama. These two countries might be a good pit stop, as here we saw SUVs of nearly every make and model. Toyota Landcruiser, 4Runner, & RAV4, Nissan Patrol and Pathfinder, Honda CR-V, Isuzu Rodeo and Trooper, Mitsubishi Montero and Sport, Hyunday Galloper (which BTW is the same as Mitsubishi Montero), Lada Niva & Ford Explorer…Again, mostly diesel engines, but chances for spare parts are probably higher here than anywhere else (probably, because we did not have to get anything repaired).

Ecuador is a Chevy territory! Well.. kind of :-) The only true Chevrolet model that we have seen there was Blazer. All others were Isuzu Trooper and Rodeo, as well as Suzuki Vitara and Grand Vitara sold under Chevy label. Lada Niva & Ford Explorer were also quite popular and then a little bit of everything else: KIA and Hyunday SUVs, and ocassional Toyota Landcruiser and 4Runner, Nissan Patrol and Pathfinder, Honda CR-V, Mitsubishi Montero and Sport.

Nissan rules in Peru! There are plenty of Nissan dealers and service centers, and Pathfinder is also a patrol car of Peru police (as well as Toyota Landcruiser). A few Subarus have been seen for the first time during the entire trip. As fuel is wildly expensive, there are few SUVs, and most cars have diesel engines.

Bolivia. Older models of Mitsubishis are probably the most popular SUVs in Bolivia. There are also plenty of Nissan Patrols & Pathfinders (a.k.a Terrano), Toyota Landcruisers, 4Runners and some RAV4. You will find Toyota and Nissan service centers in every major city. A few Suzuki Vitaras, Ford Explorers, Landrovers and old Subarus, Jeeps and Lada Nivas.

Chile. Everything goes: Toyota 4Runner, Nissan Patrol and Pathfinder, Mitsubishi Pajero, Montero and Montero Sport, KIA Sportage, various models of Hyunday, Ford Escape, Subaru, Suzuki/Chevy Vitara, Jeeps and some Lada Nivas.

Selling Vehicle

It is not allowed to import used cars into Chile and Argentina, but both countries have exceptions from this rule. In Argentina you can sell a foreign used car if it has been in the country for more than one year, but the temporary car import permit issued by customs when entering the country is only valid for 8 months. This means you would have to find a way (if it exists) to extend the validity of the permit, and stay in the country for a long time. In Chile used foreign cars can be sold in Puerto Arenas & Iquique free trade zones (zonas francas). We have not actually tried to sell our car in these countries, only consulted customs officials about the possibilities.

Shipping Vehicle out of Panama

Update: We've been told that it was possible to ship a car from Costa Rica to Ecuador for as low as $350. Here is the link: Costa Rica Shipping. Shipping agency: Barlovento Agencia Maritima S.A, Contact: Alejandro Vargas R., Operations & Logistics Coordinator, Tel. (506) 296-8480, Fax (506) 296-8475, San José, Costa Rica. However we think that this information is outdated. If some of you fellow travelers could confirm or deny this, it would be great!

Few road travelers continue beyond the Darien Gap, so do not expect to find a beaten path. There are no car/passenger ferries from Panama to Colombia or Venezuela. The only way to transfer a vehicle across the gap is by cargo boat. Come prepared for an expensive, confusing, and exhausting experience :)

The most popular car shipping method is inside a container. There is also a less expensive alternative called RoRo (Roll-on Roll-off) where a car gets affixed to the deck of the ship, however this one is considered less secure due to higher possibilities of damage and frequent occurrences of theft of the belongings left inside the vehicle while in transit. We did not find any companies offering RoRo service from Panama to Ecuador.

Car shipping procedures will slightly vary depending on the countries of origin and destination (travelers ship their cars from Costa Rica, Panama, etc. to Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, etc.), and on the carrier of choice. Listed below are the steps we took to send our car from Panama to Ecuador.

I. Measure your vehicle and determine what kind of container you will need. The following are the internal dimensions of standard containers and a link to more information on the subject:
   - 20-foot: length 19' 4.25" / 5.899m, width 7' 8.625" / 2.353m, height 7' 10" / 2.388m
   - 40-foot: length 39' 5.375" / 12.024m, width 7' 8.625" / 2.353m, height 7' 10" / 2.388m
   - 40-foot hicube: length 39' 5.375" / 12.024m, width 7' 8.625" / 2.353m, height 8' 10" / 2.692m
   - Container 101: http://www.export911.com/e911/dimen.htm

Although your car will not exceed the weight limits of a container, it is better to know an approximate weight of the vehicle, as some carriers do ask for it.

II. Find a carrier. Below are the companies, which responded to our requests for quotes. The prices quoted are for a 20-foot container and include the all the major outbound costs:
   - DIVINA TRANSPORTATION, contact Isabel Moran, phone (507) 4471770, E-mail divina@cwpanama.net - $1100.
   - SERTRANS, contact Noris Ferrín, phone (507)3176465/67/68/69, E-mail nferrin@sertrans.com.pa, Web site www.sertrans.com.pa - $1490.
   - DAC TRANSPORT, contact María Elena Paredes, phone (507) 2633146, E-mail dacmarketing@cableonda.net - $1600.
   - AMT CARGO, contact Jose Guillermo Arjona, phone (507) 2365843, cell (507) 66772365, E-mail sales@amtcargo.net, amtcargopma@cableonda.net - $1285.
   - APL, contact (or don't!!) Leo Alexis Gomez, phone (507) 2363200, cell (507) 66752691, Web site www.apl.com - $750 (no additional costs included). APL was the shipper of our choice. You can read Day 82-94 reports to find out how it went.
   - AIR MARINE CARGO, contact Micxely Gonzalez, phone (507) 4303189, E-mail amccargo16@cableonda.net - $1725.
   - SICARGA, contact Francisco Carrasco Benel, phone (507) 2601747, E-mail ventaspty@sicarga.net, Web site www.sicarga.net - $1050. Claimed to have experience in shipping cars to Ecuador.
   - ITN, contact Sara Galves, phone (507) 4310241, cell (507) 66112803 - $1250.
   - KUEHNE, contact Joel Garay, phone (507) 4304870, ext 117 - $1500.
   - A company (cannot remember the name), which was recommended to us by several other shipping companies, which could not offer service to Ecuador themselves; contact Panya, phone (507) 2696300/4414675 - $1180. Claimed to have experience in shipping cars to Ecuador.
   - EUROVAN, contact Rene Perez, phone (507) 2336699 - $1425. Claimed to have experience in shipping cars to Ecuador.
   - ACTION, contact Eric Gonzales, phone (507) 3211504 - $1530.

Below is the list of companies who were interested in our business but for some reason did not get back to us with any offers (maybe we did not wait long enough, maybe they do not have ships going to Ecuador but could ship a car to another country, etc.)

   - HCI, contact Abded, phone (507) 2790965
   - GCE, contact Diana, phone (507) 4471975
   - PCS, contact Mauricio or JC, phone (507) 4311636
   - TGD, contact Melody or Lobel, phone (507) 2630033
   - UTC, contact Sandra, phone (507) 2139333
   - AIR OCEAN, contact Vinica, phone (507) 2630831/2699774
   - OCEANIA, contact Floriveth, phone (507) 2790320
   - PLICORP, contact Tania, phone (507) 2639920, E-mail taniab@plicorp.com, Web site www.plicorp.com
   - UNIVERSAL, contact Nanja, phone (507) 4419999
   - WCE, contact Veronica, phone (507) 2278135
   - UNIK, contact Fernando, phone (507) 2249538

Next is the list of the shipping giants, which got back to us with negative answers; yet, reportedly, these companies have been used by some travelers in the past:

   - MAERSK - www.maerskline.com
   - BARWIL - www.barwil.com
   - CROWLEY - www.crowley.com
   - WALLENIUS WILHELMSEN - www.walleniuswilhelmsen.com

You can always find even more in the Yellow Pages.

III. Obtain a permit to leave the country from PTJ (Policia Tecnica Judicial). There are two PTJ offices you need to visit. The first one is located on the corner of Luis Felipe Clement and Ascanio Arosemena (GPS coordinates N08°57.951' W079°32.674', or ask any taxi driver). The second one is right across the street. In the first PTJ office, your vehicle will get inspected and verified for correspondence between the identification numbers and your ownership documents. You will be issued a document, which you will have to take to the other PTJ office (called Secretaria General). The second office will check if your car has not been involved in any traffic violations, and will issue a permit to leave the country. You will have to provide the name of your shipping company, and it will be printed on the permit. The permit is valid for 8 days. If you fail to ship the car within this period of time, you will have to go through the PTJ inspection again. The required documents are: the title of the vehicle, importation permit (the one you received when entering Panama) and your passport.

IV. Cancel the "Entrada Con Vehiculo" stamp in your passport ("Entrance with a Vehicle", you should have received it when entering the country) and obtain a vehicle exit form. This must be done in the Control de Vehiculos office at DGA (Direccion General de Aduanas). DGA is located 5 minutes from PTJ (GPS coordinates N08°58.410' or W079°32.826'). Exit the PTJ Secretaria General building, turn left, and continue down the main street until the first major turnoff to the right. About 200-300 meters/yards farther, there is a complex of large buildings on the left. This is the place you are looking for. If you go too far, you will see Policia Nacional and plenty of police cars on your right. The customs will want to know your estimated date and port of departure, as well as the name of the shipping company you are going to use. The required documents include: vehicle importation permit, PTJ permit, your passport, and a draft of the Bill of Lading or a booking confirmation from your shipping company. You can bring a print out of the shipper's e-mail confirming your reservation.

V. Check if you are ready for loading:
   - You should have a booking confirmation and a container number assigned to you by the carrier.
   - You should have a container seal provided to you by the shipping company. The seal looks like a single-use metal lock with a unique serial number. It provides a proof that the content of the container has not been touched and is required by customs.
   - Make several copies of all the documents you will need: PTJ permit, DGA vehicle exit form, car title, your passport (make a copy of the page with the canceled vehicle entry stamp also), your driver's license and vehicle import permit.
   - Bring enough cash to pay for the port services, such as moving the container and strapping the car inside.

VI. Bring the vehicle to the port on the required day (usually several days before the departure of the cargo ship), do the actual loading, and go to celebrate the successfully completed first part of the shipping quest! :)

VII. Do not forget to obtain the original Bill of Lading from your shipping company. This is the main document you will need when reclaiming your car in the destination. The original Bill of Lading can be issued only after the departure of the ship. It is not unusual for departures to get delayed; therefore it is best to buy plane tickets only when you have the Bill of Lading in your hands. Some carriers, however, are able to issue the original Bill of Lading in the port of destination.

Some tips to make your shipping experience less stressful and more economic:

1. Try to find somebody to share a container with. A 40-foot container easily fits two cars (a huge Ford Pickup and a cute Nissan Pathfinder, for example :)) and costs only $200-300 more than a 20-foot container, which fits only one car. You may meet a "shipping buddy" in the PTJ office (if you are lucky), or you can try posting a message in travel forums, like www.virtualtourist.com, www.saexplorers.org, or on our message board.
2. Contact shipping companies well in advance, as many of them respond slowly.
3. Do not spend too much time shopping because each week in Panama City will cost at least $100 per person for hotel, meals, gas, etc.
4. Make sure you understand what is and, most importantly, is not included in the shipping deal to avoid unexpected additional expenses. Below is the list of items/services to consider, followed by the amount we paid:
   - Printing of the original Bill of Lading ($50)
   - Container seal ($10)
   - Moving of the container inside the port ($0)
   - Arming/strapping of the car inside the container ($150)
   - Number of free container storage days in the port of destination (5 days)
   - Insurance (we shipped our cars without insurance, but the average rate is 1-2% of the cargo value)
5. Other questions you might want to ask your shipping agent:
   - If your vehicle is the only item in the container, or if it is going to be consolidated with some other goods.
   - Date of departure (some consolidators ship only when their containers fill up).
   - Port of departure (there are at least 3 major international ports in Panama: Balboa, Manzanillo and Colon. If you get an offer to ship your car from Colon, do not forget that it is on the Atlantic coast.
   - Ask if the company has an office or at least an agent in the port of destination.
6. Most companies have no knowledge about the expenses associated with the retrieval of the car in the port of destination. Plan on spending at least another $100 on the other side, but be ready for the bill as high as $600 in case major problems occurred (e.g. mistakes in the paperwork, etc.)
7. Make sure that your shipping company allows you to unload the container inside the port. Look for "LCL" (Local Container Load) on the Bill of Lading. If the company does not offer LCL terms, or if they do not even know what LCL means, look for another company immediately!!! Missing "LCL" will cause one of the following: (a) if LCL was forgotten by mistake, there will be a penalty of $180-240 charged by the port of Guayaquil for making the necessary amendment to the shipping documents, or (b) if the shipping company misinformed you, and in reality it is not allowed to perform LCL, you will have to take the entire container outside the port before you can take your car out of it. This procedure is called FCL (Full Container Load) and may cost around $600.
8. It is possible that LCL terms do not apply when shipping with a consolidator. Some carriers we talked to offered us a "complete package": we would only need to bring the cars to their warehouse in Panama and later pick them up from their warehouse in Ecuador. The shipping agent would take care of the rest.
9. When sharing a container with somebody, put the names of both owners on the Bill of Lading. Shipping two cars under one name may cause additional problems with customs.
10. Always have several copies of the most important documents: car title, passport, vehicle import permit and the like. You will certainly need them. Bureaucrats adore photocopies of everything! :)
11. Put all agreements with your shipping company on paper. If you discuss contract conditions by phone, insist on a confirmation by email or fax. We could have saved $600, if we had all the ALP representative's promises in written form.
12. Some travelers have reported that they were required to leave the gas tanks empty and disconnect the batteries. Nobody checked our cars, but it would not hurt to leave the tank nearly empty before heading to the port.
13. Some travelers have noted that they needed a ramp to enter and exit the container. We did it without a ramp; however, the cars with low clearance may need one.
14. Allocate enough time to all the procedures. Most carriers have only one departure a week. Allow at least 2 days for PTJ and DGA paperwork. The actual loading typically starts 2 days before departure - try to schedule it as early as possible. Count on spending at least one full day in the port during the loading, and do not forget that all the port operations are suspended during heavy rain! (at least it is so at the Port of Balboa). The Bill of Lading is issued 24 hours after the departure. The transit time between Panama and Ecuador is 4-5 days.

Receiving Vehicle in Ecuador

Below is the official list of documents you will need to bring to the port of Guayaquil in order to reclaim your vehicle (applicable to LCL option):
1. "Solicitud por la autorizacion para la importacion temporal de vehiculo", addressed to "Subgerente Maritimo del Distrito de Guayaquil, Corporacion Aduanera Ecuatoriana". This is a written request for a permission to temporarily import a vehicle into Ecuador. The form is free, but make sure it includes the following data: vehicle ID, container, Bill of Lading and passport numbers, and the name of the frontier (or the town closest to the border) through which you are planning to exit. The request has to be printed and signed.
2. "Tarja de importacion" Not sure what exactly this is, most likely a paper (or perhaps just a number) issued by the Transagent, the company responsible for moving and storing containers inside the port.
3. "Detalle de efectos personales". A list of your personal belongings which arrived inside the vehicle. This one can be handwritten.
4. Passport
5. Bill of Lading
6. Title of the vehicle
7. "Carné de Pase Internacional", which, we suspect, means the same as Carnet de Passage or Libreta de Pasos por Aduana. We did not have it, and that did not cause any problems. To our knowledge, a few years ago the President of Ecuador issued a directive allowing tourist vehicles to enter the country without Carnet de Passage.
8. This was not on the list, but most likely you will also need "Solicitud por permiso para ingreso al recinto portuario", addressed to "Securidad Fisica". This is a request for permission to enter the port territory in order to open the container and drive your car out.

If you end up having to move the entire container outside the port (FCL option), get ready for lots of extra work. We hired an agent to help us do that, and cannot describe the procedure very accurately, but this is more or less how it goes:
9. In addition to all the documents listed above, you need to get "Autorizacion de salida", which is a letter from the shipping company authorizing you to take the container outside the port territory. The shipping company will most likely ask for a deposit, which they will refund after you return the container. (APL allowed us to transport the container without deposit on the condition that we used the trucking company they trusted).
10. The container must be opened (in your presence) while still inside the port and inspected by "Jefe de Control de Zona Primaria", who will make sure that the content matches the papers.
11. You will have to pay to the port of Guayaquil for moving the container and loading it onto a truck. Note that the payment must be done in the morning if you want the container to be ready for the afternoon.
12. You will have to find and hire a truck to transport the container outside the port and return it to the shipping company when emptied out.
13. Since the container will be on the truck, you will have to find a ramp for driving the car out (or a crane to put the container on the ground - more expensive). Truck drivers usually know where to find a ramp, but expect to pay another $30-60 for the use of it.

Some additional tips to help you at the Port of Guayaquil:

1. Start early. Busineess hours in most offices are 9-11AM and 2-3:30PM.
2. Find the person in charge and check, if the port/customs rules have not changed. In our case, the "Big Boss" was CPA Alejandro Guzman Torres, Subgerente Maritimo del Distrito de Guayaquil, Corporacion Aduanera Ecuadoriana. Some other important people you will most likely need are Juan Lizarzaburu Icaza, Control Zona Primaria (responsible the container inspection), Carlos Garcia Sarmiento, Asistente de Seguridad Fisica, and Cevallo P. Juan, Inspector Aduanas. In order to move the container outside the port, you will need to get all the above-mentioned officials endorse your import papers. $20 bills appear to quickly eliminate queues and open the doors to otherwise unavailable officers.
3. Check the Temporary Car Importation Permit to see how many days in the country you have been given and do not overstay the granted period of time. Staying longer than allowed may cause problems when leaving the country. According to the law, you would be a subject to fine equal to 10 percent of the value of your vehicle.
4. All the port services can be paid in cash. However, if you need to make a payment by certified check, go to the Bank of Guayaquil. It is the only bank in the city, which seems to have an idea what a certified check is and can issue one for you (do not take "no" for an answer at the information desk, talk to a teller directly).
5. Moving the container out of the busy port of Guayaquil is an arduous job: lots of petitions to write, dozens of signatures to collect, hundreds of bribe-expecting officers to deal with, a truck to hire, etc. If you decide to get an agent to help you, you can try one of the following two:
   - Antonio Ruiz Prado (our "rescuer"). Calle Machala #425 y Rosendo Aviles, Guayaquil; pone 234 3197 or 0943 03183.
   - Fabricio Ordonez Carvajal, Gerente General (more expensive). Web site: www.geh-ec.com.
6. You can hire a truck from Transurbana (contact Antonio Neira, phone 2481157, cell 099757576) for approximately $130, or contract a freelance for about 50 percent less (look for one around the port entrance).

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