Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How to Destroy a Car?

Since we have arrived in Ushuaia (about five days ago now), we have been trying to sell our car. This turns out to be very difficult, since Argentina wont let anyone import used cars. This means we either have to sell it to someone who wants to leave the country with it (another foreigner) or someone who will drive it around illegally. We have had lots of interest in the car, but no one wants to take on the risk (even though we are selling it for very cheap). No one wants it for parts either, since pre-2004 Hondas aren't very common around here. We have found a couple of sketchy guys that just want to "trade cars" with us. I'm not sure why they think we will do this, but it's been offered more than once.

So what do you do with a perfectly functioning car you can't sell? You destroy it. We are trying to come up with ideas that aren't going to be too bad for the environment (the customs guy suggested we burn it, we said no), so we probably wont be driving it into the ocean or off of a cliff. Any ideas? Let us know!

PS We are flying out Friday. Can't wait to get back to San Francisco.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Ushuaia, Argentina or the end of the earth

We finally made it! We have been in Ushuaia for two nights now. It's absolutely beautiful and surrounded by snow capped mountains and a bay. It is cold and windy here. The actual end of the Pan-American is in the Tierra del Fuego national park, so we went there yesterday.

End of the Road, Ushuaia, Argentina

The park was beautiful, but it's hard to hike in the cold with such strong winds. This is the actual southern point we could get to in the park:

Tierra del Fuego Park, Ushuaia, Argentina

The park also had lots of wildlife. There were supposed to be beavers that were brought in and are now an invasive species, but we only saw dams, no beavers. I guess it's okay since we can see them in the US.

Red-headed woodpecker, Ushuaia, Argentina

We are now trying to sell the car (if you know anyone that wants to buy a car for cheap in Ushuaia, let me know!), which because of Argentinean import laws is proving to be very challenging.  Argentina will not let citizens import used cars, unless they have been out of Argentina for more than six months. Even those that can import, there is a duty of 78% on the car. Because we only have a temporary import, we can only sell to an expat or someone that will drive it illegally (or figure out how to import it). Our chances of selling it to an expat in Buenos Aires would be better, but that would mean having to drive back up there. So right now, we are taking our chances selling it here, maybe for parts. 

Prison Museum, Ushuaia, Argentina

Another problem with hanging out in Ushuaia is that there's not much to do outside of skiing and boat trips. As I said we originally wanted to go to Antarctica and we even went to a travel agent to ask about it. At first she told us they had a trip leaving October 29th for only $2900 per person (the normal cost is almost 5k)! It turns out that boat didn't actually go to Antarctica, only to the South Georgia Islands, the boat to Antarctica didn't leave until November 11th and was for 18 days. So, we will not be going. We did however check out the prison museum in Ushuaia, which turns out was originally a penal colony. The museum was a strange mix of art, history of the town, maritime museum and prison museum. Not only was it a prison museum, it was a museum of other prison museums. Someone had gone to prison museums all over the world and taken pictures. Crazy how many of them exist. 

More pictures soon when I have better internet! 

Friday, October 19, 2012

So Close

I am writing from Lago Fagnano, just about 50 miles north of Ushuaia, Argentina (also know as the end of the earth). Because of timing, we will not be making it to Antarctica (boats will not leave til at least mid November and even then it depends on weather). So, Ushuaia will be our final destination. After spending some time in Ushuaia, we will need to figure out what to do with the car. Argentina does not allow import of cars older than 10 years, so we will most likely be selling for parts or to someone in Tierra del Fuego that will only use it for going around town. It will be a bit sad for our trip to be over, but I think A and I are both excited to get back home and to normal life. Enough blabbering, some pictures and things we've done since my last post!

Shoe destruction, Argentina

1. We saw a glacier! A friend from work T and his wife L were actually vacationing down in the glacier park, so we decided to stop by and say hi (as well as see the glacier, which was totally worth it on it's own). Was great to see some friendly faces.

Glacier Moreno, Argentina

2. Penguins, I wrote about this and will totally upload photos soon, but here is me putting a penguin in my purse.

3. The way to get to Ushuaia and the Tierra del Fuego Islands in Argentina is via Chile. There is a small section in which you have to exit Argentina, take a car ferry across the water and drive on a dirt road for a few hundred kilometeres (even though all the other roads in Chile are paved) and enter back into Argentina. There is almost nothing on the road, no gas and no food. We were prepared for this, but it was still a very long day. We had planned to make it all the way to Ushuaia, but we saw a sign on the side of the road for a Hosteria on a beautiful lake so we decided to stop. Turns out the owners are a young couple (Juan and Ajalin) who have done almost the same driving trip than us, just in reverse! I would definitely recommend staying in their lovely hotel if you visit the area. Their hosteria is called Kaiken and is right near the town of Tohuin.

View from our Cabina, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

My camera ran out of batteries, but I will upload tons more glacier photos and penguin (and Ushuaia) when it's charged!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Argentina, Southbound

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

It's been a long time since I've updated (but I did post some pics on G+!), my parents met us in Buenos Aires, so we were busy running all over the place and eating everything. I think I finally got my fill of steak and wine. Buenos Aires is definitely a very european style city, full of small butcher shops, fruit vendors, little cafes, etc. My father has all the Buenos Aires pictures, but I will try to post a few soon. Some highlights of Buenos Aires (besides getting to see my parents for a week):

1. All of the amazing restaurants, including steak, pastas, and even a great french place.

2. Staying in a place where we could cook. We even got to have pancakes! We stayed in the neighbordhood of San Telmo, which was super cute (it's known as the Tango neighborhood,  but we managed to avoid Tango entirely) and we were able to park the car on the street easily.

Antique shop, San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

3. Seeing not one, but about 15 capybaras at the Buenos Aires zoo. We even got to see the less awesome side of capybaras, when one ate its own poop in front of us.

Capybara, Iguazu Wildlife Refuge, Argentina

4. Being in a real city again, without the car! It was nice to walk/take the train places again. Although, on the subway someone tried to pickpocket my father.

Penguin, Punto Tambo, Argentina

Since Buenos Aires, we've been trying to make good time down to Ushaia, although yesterday we stopped by a Penguin Colony. We got to see a billion penguins up close, they are pretty cute. Unfortunately the babies aren't around til the end of the year, but we did get to see their eggs. Almost immediately after that, we ran out of gas on the highway for the first time. Turns out everyone we interacted with was super friendly and helpful, way more than required. The next gas station was about 30 miles away, oops. I did get to ride in a truck for the first time, though.

Here are some more photos from the past month or so:

Llamas in the road, Argentina

Machu Picchu, Peru

Making Chocolate, Cusco, Peru

After staying with D in Cusco, we somehow got zero pictures of us together. We had a great time in Cusco though! We do seem to have tons of us making chocolate!

Tropic of Capricorn, Argentina

Monday, October 1, 2012

Random Things

1. We saw a dead bear on the highway in Peru. Rigor mortis dead. I wish we had gone back for a picture.

2. We found our new favorite song on Bolivian radio.

3. We have descended off the mountains to sea level, this now means there are cockroaches. I'm totally freaked out. But, the sunsets are beautiful here.

4. There are two speed guns in all of Mexico, Central and South America. They are located on one road in Bolivia. They are unfortunately susceptible to non Spanish speakers.

5. Argentians love: bidets, camping, sandwiches and mate. Seriously go read the wikipedia about it, the strangest part is not the fact that they drink it, but that they carry around this stupid little mug with a metal straw to drink it out of. Along with an enormous thermos full of hot water. They also have this whole ritual around drinking it that is strangely drug like.
*Photo from Wikipedia, not mine.

6. We saw Iguazu falls, which is larger than Niagra. We only got to see the Argentinian side since to see the Brazilian side we would need a visa which costs $135 (USD). It was pretty spectacular even though we went on a horrible rainy day. Pictures to come when I have better internet.

7. We went to an animal preservation site and got to see three(!) capybaras. They call them carpincha here. We didn't know they were around this far south, but apparently they're all over South America. Here is a video of one chewing.

8. More to come soon when I have better internet to upload photos and such (that are not from my phone).

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Puedo ver lo?

We have made it to Bolivia, and so far as not been much better than Peru. With the exception of seeing D, K and C in Cusco (which was fantastic, we realized we hadn't had a conversation with anyone besides each other since Colombia), we didn't like much about Peru. Since Cusco was a big tourist area, I was even able to get a salad. The only thing they seem to eat in Peru is really salty roasted Chicken and french fries. I told A that I'm on a strict diet of french fries, chicken, coke and white rice. Sometimes they'll put a single slice of tomato on the side.

Cell Phone Pic of Machu Picchu, Peru (better ones to come)

We even went to see Machu Picchu (will post more photos from my camera later), which while beautiful is very expensive to get there and all of the tourist stuff around is unimaginably irritating. First of all, there is no direct road to the town of agua calientes (the closest town to Machu Picchu), so you must take a very expensive train to get there. On the train they will play music at ear splitting levels and try and get you to buy their llama sweaters and such (this is after paying $55+ one way per person). Then the town of Agua Calientes is a terrible tourist trap (since you pretty much need to stay over night there to see Machu Picchu). The food is expensive and horrible, there is almost no where to walk or go. The hot springs are filthy and overrun with drunk people. If I were to direct other people doing this, I'd suggest spending the $300 dollars for the night and staying at the lodge right at Machu Picchu, this way you avoid Agua Calientes all together and can get to Machu Picchu first thing. Machu Picchu is provably the most breathtaking ruins (because it is on top of a mountain set in the middle of nowhere) in terms of location, but was not as interesting to us as Copan Ruins (Honduras). 

One thing we haven't figured out is older Peruvian (and Bolivian) women from the Mountains where a traditional outfit which includes a felt bowler (or top or other strange style) hat. 

City Street, Peru

As per the title of this post: In the United States, I have never asked to see a hotel room before staying there. I guess you could, but there is some expectation of quality and services based on the price. In Central and South America, that is not the case. It is definitely necessary to see the room before choosing to stay there. This is also why we don't book hotels in advance. Things we typically ask about before even seeing the room: parking, wifi, hot shower (or AC depending on climate), toilet seat, and towels. 

Parking: Sometimes they say they have parking, but it is blocks away in a dirt lot that our little car cannot get up, or they want the keys so they can do some car shuffles (we don't give anyone the keys to the car), or it is not actually in a secure lot, etc. Having access to the car right on the hotel site is useful for many reasons. 

WIFI: They will say they have WIFI, but it is only in the lobby, unfathomably slow or is not actually theirs.

Hot Shower: This is the big one, almost every place tells you they have hot showers, some of them look like the picture below (note these type of showers will shock you if you put your hand too close).  We have now learned to turn the shower on and make sure, mostly they will say "oh it takes a few minutes to heat up." While this is sometimes true, it is not true when it's one of the electric shower heads. Also important: pressure. You will almost never find American shower pressure, but you need to make sure the shower is more than a small drip. Now hot showers have only become a problem since the Southern part of Colombia, where is became cold. In Cusco, it was so cold people where enormous jackets at night.

Terrifying Electric Shower Heads

Air Conditioning: This no longer applies since it is freezing out (and no one has heat here, not even fancy hotels), but even places that appeared to have air conditioners, sometimes those air conditioners just blew hot air. 

Toilet Seat: You will almost never find a toilet seat in a public restroom (even if you are paying for said restroom) anywhere in South America. I'm not really sure why. They don't have squatters like in China, but they seem to be fine without a toilet seat. This is important to check in hotels. Even some nicer hotels don't have them, I cannot understand why. We have even considered buying one to carry with us. 

Towels: Now in hotels, since there are two of us, we are paying for a "matrimonial" room. This means there is one larger bed for two people. This implies two people are staying. Many places will try to only give you one towel, you seem to always have to ask for a second. In Aguas Calientes, they even went as far as to try to charge us for a second towel. Also, the towels are tiny and often smell funny.

So those are all the things we check, other annoying things about bathrooms in Central/South America:

Cleanliness: They range from filthy to clean-ish. You will always find hair all over, even in nicer places. There will often be standing pools of water on the floor. 

Shower Curtain: For some reason they don't seem to mind when water gets all over the bathroom floors. Many places will not have shower curtains and when they do, sometimes they will not be long enough or cover the whole area. There is almost never a lip dividing the shower either, so either way the whole bathroom is wet. 

Shower Drains: Shower drains almost never drain, leaving you standing in a pool of filthy water and hair (see cleanliness). This also means even if there is a dividing lip between the shower and  the rest of the bathroom, it will overflow getting water everywhere. 

Bath Mats and Hand Towels: I'm not sure we've seen these since Mexico. Since the entire bathroom is covered in water anyway, why bother?

More about Bolivia and it's corrupt Policia and Aduana soon!

Friday, September 14, 2012


Peru has been strange so far and certainly has not been our favorite country. It turns out it is many thousands of kilometers of desert along the coast, sand seems to blow up from the ocean and cover everything. These deserts are then covered with shanty towns. In the northern part of Peru, you could drive for 100km without seeing anything. To make it even stranger, the roads are in perfect condition, and you will occasionally come across a toll both, which will not be excepting tolls in the Southern direction. We didn't believe they collected tolls until we had to pay one closer to Lima.

Playa Tortuga, Peru

It doesn't help that it is winter here, so the beach towns are all closed up. The other night we were driving on the highway and it got dark and it took forever to find somewhere to stay. There were hundreds of little beach towns, but they seemed all boarded up and some only consisted of fancy condominiums. We finally pulled off to one of the towns that had a paved road, there were a few hostals (which is Spanish means small hotel, not somewhere with bunk beds and guys with dreds). A went into one to ask about it, there was only a child there, he had to run and call his brother to see how much to charge. I guess this should have been our first sign, but we were desperate for somewhere to stay and since it's winter, we were guessing it's just the off season. When we went up the stairs, we were greeted with this little scene:

Hostal, Cerro Azul, Peru

Everything seemed fine though, except until the next morning when we tried to leave and they had LOCKED US IN. The woman who I guess was overseeing the place decided to go run some errands and locked the front door. She did not bother to tell us she was going to do this. It was one of those locks that would be supper illegal in the US, that you need a key from both sides. We spent a while going through the whole place looking for keys, eventually she returned, but we were about five minutes from smashing the glass to exit. I can't imagine what was going through her head when she did that, but I can't say this made us enjoy peru any more than we already did. 

Drive to Caraz, Peru

We did have one enjoyable hike, up in the mountains. We wanted to do a hike near Huraz called the Santa Cruz trek. It is 4 days/3 nights and was supposed to be totally safe and doable without a guide. After it took us two days of trying to get there, we decided to just do one day. I will post pictures of that when I get a chance to upload from my camera. Probably the worst part of the hike (other than being very steep uphill) was discovering how bad sand flies bite (and later discovering you can get a horrible disease from them). I'm usually not too bothered by misquitos and such, but right now I feel like I'm gonna itch my legs off, it's horrible. 

Drive to Caraz, Peru

Another strange thing about Peru is the Chinese influence, we had noticed a lot of people look vaguely Chinese and the supermarkets had a Chinese produce section, but we really noticed it yesterday when we stopped at a small restaurant off the highway and they served us chicken in a star anise sauce with pickled radishes. Turns out in the 1850's Peru was importing Chinese laborers as essentially slaves. Reading more on it, seems like different people estimate it differently, but at least 5% of the population has some Chinese origins.

We are very excited to make it to Cusco, to see A's friends as well as D (oh and maccu picchu and stuff).

Friday, September 7, 2012

Colombia and Ecuador

I've had a pretty sketchy internet connection these last few days, so today I finally got around to uploading some photos. Album here (again if you don't use g+, email me and I can send you the link).

Scene from our beautiful drive through Ecuador

First of all, we met our first set of other people doing this trip! S & E are from Germany. They shipped their car from Germany to Halifax and have been on the road 17 months! They had a much more legit setup than us, with a pop-up tent on their car (photo below). They thought we were absolutely crazy for doing this trip in 4 months, maybe we are, but it still feels like we've been away from home for a long time. They are essentially going until money runs out, which I think is a common theme (from blogs I've read) of people dong this trip. I cannot imagine living on top of a car for two years, but I guess we are missing out on a lot of stuff by going so quickly.

S & E's Car. What ours should look like if we were serious

We are currently in Catacocha, Ecuador (very close to the Peruvian boarder). We have been enjoying Ecuador, the scenery is beautiful and everything has been super cheap. We had originally wanted to go to the Galapagos, but after looking at timing and cost, it looked like it was too much to include in this trip. That being the case, we have been staying on the mountainous side of Ecuador, which has been cold (which was a  welcomed change after a long hot week in Cartagena, Colombia). We have spent the night sleeping in the crater of a(n inactive) volcano, a water park, and in the beautiful town of Banos, that has natural hot springs. I forgot to mention that gas is RIDICULOUSLY cheap in Ecuador, $1.50/gallon. Ecuador also uses USD, which makes everything easier. The roads for the most part have been super well maintained and tolls are very low. Food is also cheap and better (in my opinion) than Colombia. In Colombia, every meal seems to come with: a soup, at least 4 starches (rice, beans, plantains, yuca, pasta?, etc), a "salad" which is sometimes sweet and sometimes mayonnaise-y and a sugary beverage. The soup is usually the best thing. They seem to love sugary drinks. The plus side is that everyone makes fresh fruit juice, so you can get strange tropical juices almost anywhere for very cheap.

Pululahua Volcano, Ecuador

Once we got the car in Colombia, we were behind on schedule (of getting down to Buenos Aires by beginning of October to meet my parents), so we decided to start doing some long driving days. We had originally planned to spend a few days in Bogata, but we took the western route to Medellin first. It turns out Medellin and Bogata are about 9 hours apart by car, because they are on two separate mountain ranges. Also, having the car in large cities is almost always a pain. When we arrived in Medellin we had marked a bunch of hotels in one area we wanted to stay at, when we got to that neighborhood it was pretty sketchy (prostitution is legal in Colombia, so I think it makes sketchy areas seem even sketchier) so we ended up driving around for a few hours looking for a place to stay. We did not really want to repeat this in an even larger, more crowded city. We hope to go back sometime soon, though.

Alligator Cast, Medellin, Colombia

Otherwise, we really liked Medellin, it seems like a city you could actually live in. There is a subway line and a bunch of totally reasonable residential neighborhoods. We visited the modern art museum, the zoo, the botanical garden (this is a strong word, it was more like central park with some tropical plants, very pretty though), and the exploratiorium. It was nice to be away from the car seeing things. After leaving Medellin, we spent a few hours twisting and turning through the beautiful mountains of Colombia. Probably one of the worst parts of driving in Colombia is the expensive tolls, every 100km (or sometimes less), you pay a toll somewhere between 3 and 5 dollars. This adds up quick, as well as gas being ~5 dollars/gallon.

Cartagena, Colombia

Today we are heading to Peru, we are trying to catch A's friends who are going to be doing Machu Picchu on the 19th! We are also very excited to do some more hiking and camping in Peru.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Shipping Across the Darien Gap Colombia

Warning: This is another post about logistics. This will not be interesting to you unless you are doing this trip as well. This is the third in the series, start with the summary and then read Panama.

We arrived in Cartagena on Thursday August 23rd, our boat with the container was supposed to leave the 21st, arrive the 22nd, so perfect, right? Except, when we called Seaboard and Barwil they told us the boat wasn't arriving til Saturday. They of course never thought to call and tell us this. Luckily we could track the boat online. We wanted to start the process as soon as possible, but the boat did not start moving til Friday afternoon. We called Seaboard and they are not open on the weekend, so we had to wait til Monday to get the Bill of Lading from them (which is necessary to start the car import process). So not only did their boat leave almost a week late and they didn't inform us, they also were not very helpful in the process and made us wait in Cartagena until the next week.

Note: Lots of people seem to hire an agent for this process, we did not. It costs about $175 dollars to do so.  Most people in the offices speak no English, so if you don't speak Spanish, this process could be very difficult. People tend to be friendly and helpful, so if you are confused, ask someone.

To start the process you must get the Bill of Lading. For us (since we shipped with Seaboard Marine) this meant going to the Muelles de Bosque port at 8am. The Seaboard office is to the left of the entrance (note you don't need to go into the port to do this, they have a window outside). They had it mostly ready when we got there. We had heard from others that if you got all your paperwork done before 1030am, you could get your car the same day. We rushed over to the Manga port where the DIAN (Aduana) is to get our car import form and schedule our inspection. Note that you need to go to the North side of the port (the taxi drives seem to know where the DIAN office is). When we got there the woman took our paperwork (which involves a copy of your passport, passport stamp, title, cancellation form from Panama, and bill of lading), but informed us we couldn't get our car inspected til the next day at 8am. It was only 9am at this point, but she said no way, even after much arguing. At this point, there was nothing to do except spend another hot day in Cartagena.

The next day at about quarter to 8, we showed up at the Muelles de Bosque port again. This step involves getting someone to open your container and getting an invoice. This happens at the document office. You need to surrender your passport at the gate to go in. When we went to the desk, the woman seemed confused by our Bill of Lading and asked if Seaboard marine had put other things in our container??? This was not the case. BUT, Seaboard Marine did screw us a third time, they had not informed the port that our container needed to be moved, so it was not in fact in the inspection area. This could not actually be done til 2pm, since it had not been scheduled the day before. At this point, it turned out the magical inspector (who is supposed to be at the Muelles de Bosque port from 8-2) had already left, it was only 930am. They were also confused at the port who was supposed to pay for the unstuffing of our container. Luckily, we had a detailed receipt from Barwil that we showed them, at that point they were able to send an invoice to Seaboard Marine, but this took almost three hours to go through their system.

There was a woman that worked in the Muelles de Bosque office named Andrea, who spoke English really well and helped us a lot. She was able to call the inspector and get him to agree to come back at 2pm. At this point there was a lot of waiting around. The port basically closes from 12-2pm for lunch. We were able to get our container moved and unstuffed before 2pm as well as getting the invoice needed for port fees (which you pay once your car is inspected). This probably could not have happened in one day without Andrea's help.

Once we were able to get the invoice and into the port, they had already opened our container. Apparently this is pretty common, no inspector or anything (so much for all the photos of the customs seal and such). The car was alright, but they insisted on driving it out of the container and then basically told us to get lost. We drove the car back over to the document office (or rather the area in the fenced off port closest to the document office) to wait for the inspector. We waited and asked everyone and waited some more. Finally at around 330 we found Andrea again. She was able to call the inspector and he agreed we could take some photos of the car and bring it to him at Manga (we had to suggest this many times, they did not offer). We snapped some photos (after getting yelled at by the guard and then getting permission) and got back in a taxi to Manga. We found the inspector and he signed our papers after looking at just two of the many photos of the car and the VIN. He gave us our stapled paperwork that we had given to the woman in the Magna office the day before, which now included permission to enter Colombia with our car! We got into another taxi and headed back to Muelles de Bosque to pay our invoice and get the exit permission from the port. This was all pretty quick. We rolled out of the port around 5pm (remember to pick up your passport and return your badge).

All in all, it would have been easier to ship with someone that shipped to Magna, to avoid the back and forth. We also could have done the whole process in one day, since the inspector never actually went to see our car in Muelles de Bosque. This was all annoying, but after almost two weeks, we were very happy to have our car back and get out of Cartagena. I could not say I would recommend using Seaboard Marine, with all the trouble we had with them. Although, I am not sure there is a better option.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Shipping Across the Darien Gap Panama

Warning: This post is mostly logistics. If you aren't doing this trip in the future or really love reading about logistics, you can probably skip this. If you haven't already, please read the summary post before this one.

Friday (or Monday -- their office opens at 8am supposedly):

After reading a lot about the process, we decided we would arrive in Panama city on Friday (August 10th) and stop by the Barwill office. They tell us the boat is all set to leave the next Sunday and gave us all the paperwork (a draft Bill of Lading along with two sets of photo copies of necessary documents we would give to the Aduanas) we would need for Monday. The woman we worked with was named either Pamela (whose email address is mysteriously missing from our contact email) or Mabel (mabel.estribi@wilhelmsen.comf cell:+507 66 74 68 57), it was really hard to tell (she sent emails from one name, but they sometimes referred to her by the other). She speaks some English, but prefers Spanish if you can understand. Everyone else recommended working with Evelyn (, but she was on maternity leave.

Barwil office: It's in an area outside the city called Panama Pacifico, it's in a very american looking suburban office park. It's on the 4th floor of the furthest north building in the plaza. They're only open from 8am-4pm M-F and don't expect anyone to answer email or their phones after those hours. They require IDs to get upstairs, but fake copies of drivers licenses were fine)

GPS: N8 55.662, W79 35.561
Turnoff from Highway: N8 57.142, W79 35.309

Monday (or Tuesday) at 9am:

On Monday the first thing you do is go and get your car "inspected." Barwill gives you a sort of crummy map of the city with the offices, but it is still difficult to find (even with  GPS coordinates). It's a parking lot behind a nondescript looking building and it's filled with a bunch of taxis and other cars. When you're turning right off the main road (you must approach from the correct side, otherwise it will be very difficult to u-turn and get there), its the second parking lot on your left (the first is tiny and on the corner with the main street). You turn off the main road right after the overpass. We did a trial run on Sunday to make sure we could get there okay, I would definitely recommend this. The paper Barwil gives you says the inspection is from 9-10am. When we get there we ask someone and he tells us the guy gets there at 9, but doesn't work til 10. In reality he came out closer to 10:30am. Back into a parking spot close to the door and open your hood. You will need to give the inspector a set of your copies, which will appear in the Secretary General office later across the street. You will not leave here with anything.

GPS: N8 57.970 W79 32.690

***If you paperwork is incorrect and you cannot do the step above, you will need to visit the Aduana office which is a few blocks away. GPS: N8 58.490 W79 32.819

After 2pm:

Go to the secretary general office across the street in PANTS and SHOES -- they will not let you in without them. When we went they were doing construction so you had to park around the back, meaning you had to drive past it then approach it from the rear. We actually got to the office at 1:30 and the woman was ready to do our paperwork. The entrance is the same side as the main road, you will need to get a badge to go in (and give them ID,  since you will need your passport, make sure to give them a drivers license, the fake copy of mine worked fine). They will give you a form that includes permission to exit the country with your vehicle.

GPS: N8 57.947 W79 32.719

Wednesday 7am (or Thursday):

Wear pants and shoes, you can't go onto the port without them. Drive to Colon, it's on a main toll road and super easy. The Barwil office (says Wilhemson on the door) is on the second floor of a business park in the Manzanillo port (there are three different ports in Colon). It is the entrance to the left of the big fountain area. We were told to ask for Mary and Alfredo. When we got there we had to wait about an hour for Alfredo to show up. Afredo is a fairly friendly guy, he understands English, but prefers Spanish. Alfredo drove his car alongside ours to the various offices to take care of the loading into the container. First we went to customs and then onto the port. At the port we had to go inside and get some paper work filled out and pay the port fees (30 dollars). After that we could bring the car to the container loading area. It took about two hours for the container to show up once we got inspected (inspected = a guy comes by, asks you to open your trunk, pushes stuff around), but it was quick to load. We took pictures of the seal or everything, but this was irrelevant in Colombia. You are required to roll your windows down a bit, the guys will try to get you to roll them down more than a crack, don't.

Once we stuffed our container, since we refused to pay until we had our car in a container, this meant carrying 1500 dollars cash on us. We ended up giving it to Alfredo in the back seat of his car, at which point he kept telling us how terrifying it was going to be driving across the city to the bank with that much money. We held our tongues (mainly because it wasn't his fault) from pointing out that it was in fact their companies policy to pay in cash... People kept saying how dangerous Colon is, but it really just looked like every other Central American city to us.

GPS for Barwil office in Manzanillo: N9 21.931 W79 52.849

We were done by 230. Since the train that goes down the canal didn't leave til 530, we decided to take the express bus. The train is supposed to be a nice ride, but it costs ~25 dollars, whereas the bus costs 3.15. Alfredo drove us to the bus station and pointed us to the correct bus. The whole process seemed eerily easy (from all the terrible things we'd heard). Bus ride back was quick and we were able to get off not too far from our hotel.

As I stated before, I would not leave Panama until you know the boat is leaving Panama city, otherwise you end up wondering whether you need to fly back to Panama when something goes wrong.

I detailed our process in Colombia in a separate post.

Shipping Across the Darien Gap Summary

After almost two weeks, we finally have our car back in one piece and are high-tailing it through Colombia. As I believe I explained earlier, there is one stretch of this journey that cannot be driven. It's called the darien gap and covers the entire distance between Panama and Colombia.

The rest of this post will mostly be about the process of shipping, so unless you're planning to do this trip or you really love reading about complicated logistics in foreign countries, you may not want yo read any further. I will do a nice post with photos and such soon.

We had spent a lot of time online reading (mostly other people's accounts via Drive the Americas Site -- see more links to accounts below) about how the process works, but it seems like it is slightly different for everyone. It was really helpful to be able to read multiple people's advice and how it worked for them (hence me attempting to post this here). Feel free to contact me if you have any specific questions about any of this. We shipped with Barwil (via Seaboard Marine) and were not particularly thrilled with them (in fact they screwed us a few times). We also looked into some other options listed below.

Before the long explanation of everything, here are some useful tips:

1. When you are entering Panama make sure everything is correct on your car import paperwork. We heard from many others that if it is not, you will spend many hours running back and forth to the Aduana in Panama City and may miss your boat. Make sure the Motor Number is not marked as Not Visible (N/V), put the VIN number there if you can't see it in your car. We spent about three hours at the border making them re-type the paperwork (at one point the guy in the office even threw a hissy-fit). This made it so we never had any issues with our paperwork.

2. Do a trial run of driving to the offices in Panama city before you need to, driving is very annoying and streets aren't marked. Even with a GPS we got lost several times.

3. Get formal quotes from several companies. Don't pay anything until your car is in the container, they will try and get you to pay beforehand.

4. Make sure you list out all of the fees and understand what you're paying to the agent. These include: Ocean Freight, Stuffing (Colon), Unstuffing (Cartagena), Doc Fee, Agent Fee, Drayage (moving of the container), Port Fees (Panama), Port Fees (Colombia). None of the quotes you get in Panama will include port fees or an agents help on the Colombia side (this can be hired separately).

5. Find a hotel you are comfortable staying at for many days (with parking). We stayed at Villa Michelle, it is a bit out of the way, but there was a full kitchen and we were excited to be able to cook for ourselves. It costs 45/night (cash only), but had a shared bathroom. In Cartagena we stayed at Casa Tatis for 70,000/night (after moving around a bit). We discovered strong air conditioning is a must. Under no circumstances stay at Hotel Espanaola, there is a very loud club downstairs that will blast techno all night.

6. You must call your shipping agent to confirm everything, they will not call you if something is running late or has gone wrong.

7. Arrive on Monday to start the shipping process, you will want your vehicle inspected on Monday or Tuesday, in time to get your vehicle into a container in Colon on Wednesday or Thursday.

8. Get a SIM card, they are super cheap in Panama. You can even get data for something like 4 dollars for 7 days. This will help a lot with the logistics.

9. Wear pants and shoes to everything, some offices will not let you in without them.

10. Bring snacks. You'll often be sitting around for a long time.

11. Don't get on a plane or boat until your car is in motion, otherwise you are totally powerless to do anything. If I did it again, once the boat leaves, fly to Bogata and take a bus from Bogata to Cartagena once your stuff is ready. Cartagena is too hot and there is not much going on.

Different Companies and Prices:

We had originally contacted Barwil (who is an agency the handles the paperwork for you on the Panama side) about shipping via RORO (roll on roll off), since it was supposed to be cheaper (the downside is you need to remove everything from your car that is not completely locked down, because you give them the keys). They said there was a RORO boat leaving the 16th of August, this was actually perfect timing for us. As the date approached, we contacted again and they told us that the RORO ship was actually not leaving til the 9th of September, but we could ship via a container (which leaves every week on Sunday). Since we are trying to do this whole trip in only 4 months, we decided that we would have to do this (what other option did we have, really?)

There are two main companies we know of for shipping to Panama. Seaboard Marine and Marfret. For Seaboard marine you can work directly with them, or use Barwil as an agent (contact info on Panama page). Barwil was much more responsive to email. Marfret would not work directly with us, they recommended an agent named Boris who also seems to work with an agent that many people use called Tea ( Neither Boris nor tea were as responsive as we would have liked via email or phone. There were a few exchanges with Boris where we'd call him and he'd say, "send me an email," which we already had hours before. Boris and Tea had found someone for us to share a container with (which was not the case with Barwil), but both seemed totally incompetent with logistics. I'd read many other reports from people saying Boris had asked them to meet him in a parking lot in Colon at 9am and not shown up til after 2. To complicate the matter, the shipping partner they had found for us somehow had an expired exit permit and wanted to get it corrected on the same day he was shipping, rather than doing it the day before (with no explanation as to why). We were not comfortable with the possibility of not getting into a container for the next shipment, so ultimately ended up shipping with Barwil Solo in a 20' container. I cannot say this was the correct choice, since the boat left almost a week late (and no one ever contacted us to tell us this, we had to call).

Comparison of Costs:
Costs for Barwil solo: 1475 (includes ocean freight, stuffing/unstuffing, drayage, doc fee)
Costs for Barwil shared: 1000 (includes ocean freight, stuffing/unstuffing, drayage, doc fee)
Costs for Everlogistics (with Tea and Boris): 1050 (does not include things like unstuffng on the Colombia side which I believe is something around 150 dollars).

Other costs:
Port Fees Panama: 30
Port Fees Colombia: ~170
Taxis: Seaboard marine ships to Mulles de Bosque port in Cartagena, the government office (DIAN) for paperwork is at the Magna port. The logistics would have been much easier with a company that shipped to Magna, but I am not sure which do.

We spent a bunch of time reading other people's accounts (thanks so much for their help). You can read there here: LifeRemotely, FromAtoB, and TheRoadChoseMe!

Also, read on for our specific instructions/account of the process in Panama and Colombia.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The journey to Colombia

I'm sad to report that A and I will not be sailing around the world anytime soon. In fact, we have no interest in getting on a boat for a very long time. For some reason I got the idea in my head that it'd be fun to take a boat to Colombia, even though I get car sick (a separate boat from our car, that one is for cargo only). I will spare you the details of how one gets a car from panama to Colombia (I actually won't, I'll post about it later when I have my computer back). This will be a short post since I am writing it on my phone since we do no have our car (and our stuff back).

Some highlights of the car shipping:

1. Carrying 1500 cash in TWENTIES (for some reason panama doesn't believe in 100s) through a very dangerous neighborhood. Our shipping agent was nervous to carry that much cash on him (except of course they make you pay in cash so it is their fault...)

2. Spending days on the phones with various agents and running between offices.

3. Arriving in Colombia a week later to find out your boat has not even left panama and there is nothing you can do about it.

4. A did not murder a single person (yet... we still don't have our car or our documents)

Some musings from the boat trip:

1. We learned a new term: "aqua-poopoo". It's when your ships captain poops in the ocean water instead of using the horrible pump toilet on the boat. He even has special techniques for this involving how to fan away the water quickly.

2. Never get on a boat for 5 days that does not bathing facilities. Ever. Even if you've just taken a multi-hour 4x4 ride and speed boat trip to get there.

3. Salad is not good for the stomach, despite your captain insisting on it.

4. Dolphins swimming next to the boat are very hard to photograph. You'll have to believe us.

5. Apparently snorkeling gives you a really bad sunburn on your back, we're shedding.
6. Don't stay at a hostal with horse art on the walls that looks like a prison, loud techno music will be thumping from the club downstairs, all night.

I'll write more when I have the chrome book back.

Sunday, August 12, 2012


Before I get to the exciting stuff, I will tell you a bit about Panama. It's like America. Gas is cheap, roads are nice, people speak English and THEY USE USD. They call it a Balboa, but it's interchangeable with the dollar. They use US bills and coins, but mint some of their own coins. They're just like US coins, except they have different stuff on them (same weights, etc). It's sorta weird. Panama City looks like Miami. No one walks anywhere, they just drive. We saw a woman on a Rascal in a supermarket. 

That's right, this very dark photo is of a capybara (thanks Dad for making it easier to see!)!

Now the good stuff, animals of course. One of our goals for this trip was to see a capybara, little did we know we'd be seeing them way sooner than expected. Turns out there are two types of capybara, one that exists in Panama, Columbia and Venezuela, known as the lesser capybara. On a whim (and having gotten to Panama way too early -- we don't put our car onto the boat until August 15th, we entered Panama on the 8th) we decided to go to Soberania national park, mostly because there was supposed to be some excellent animal/bird viewing on "pipeline road." I figured we would just drive and find a hotel (this was after rushing to Panama City to meet with our shipping company to get our paperwork in order for Monday). When we got to Gamboa (which is the last town up the road into the park), we quickly realized there wasn't much there. Except these GIANT rat like things (not as big as capybabra, but much more rat like, the head is like a rat, the back end is more like a rabbit) called Agouti that run all over. 

Agouti running across the lawn at breakfast

The Smithsonian research facility for the tropics is located in Gamboa, so it's mostly graduate students (we even saw a game of ultimate happening!). There is also a super fancy resort in town (200 dollars a night) that attracts a lot of Canadian tourists. It used to be one of the main towns for Canal workers and then US solders lived there when the bases were full. All of the houses were constructed around the same time, so they all look the same and have very neat floor plans the are above an open air car port.

 After exploring all the expensive hotels/bed and breakfasts in town we found this wonderful couple (Mateo and Beatrice) that rented out little cabins behind their house, they even drove us around to the trail head. After having hiked all day and not seen any capybaras (we did see some awesome plants, lots of birds and five monkeys!), we decided to stay another night to go hunting (they are nocturnal). We ended up only seeing one, but it was totally worth it (see if you can find it in the photo above). It sat there kinda shell shocked for a minute and then waddled back into the reeds. In addition to being super sweet, Mateo let us feed the monkeys in his backyard!!

Feeding a monkey in Mateo's backyard!

That was the fun stuff, now we are preparing to ship the car to Columbia. The next three days (assuming everything goes well) will be filled with waiting, filling out forms, driving across town, waiting, more forms, more waiting, etc. Then off to Columbia! We are spending four days staying at a crazy hostel/hotel thing with the upside of them having parking and kitchen where we can finally cook some meals.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Photo Update (from Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica)

Crazy Flower from Cartago Botanical Gardens, Costa Rica

I should start with a warning that a LOT of these are boring nature photographs. I probably shouldn't be attempting to photograph flowers and plants and such since 1. I'm not an amazing photographer 2. I don't have a super fancy camera, just a decent point and shoot hand me down from my father. So sorry in advance, everything is just so crazy looking, it's hard not to take a billion photos. I again posted a bunch of photos on google+, if you'd like to see them either email me or add me. 

Lago Atitlan, Guatemala

Copan Ruins, Honduras

Waterfall, Honduras

Young Coffee Plants, Honduras

Crazy Blue Lake, Honduras

We have (read I) been reading a lot of blogs of other people that have done this trip, mainly to understand things like border crossing, etc. Our biggest border crossing is coming up soon, the Darien Gap. We have been evaluating our options for getting our car across. There is a website dedicated to people that do the exact trip we are doing that has been extremely helpful. Through reading this though, we have come to understand that everyone else does this in a truck or some such well equipped vehicle. A thinks we should re-title the blog to "low clearance vehicle." Costa Rica has not been so bad in terms of roads, but the sound of the bottom of our car scraping a tope will probably haunt my nightmares forever.  

Today we not only got to see the fabulous botanical garden in Cartago, but we drove through a cloud forest. We could barely see more than a few feet in front of us, it was pretty scary. People also don't turn their lights on in low-visibility situations here. After the cloud, it started pouring. Luckily we saw a hotel sign that said "WIFI HOT WATER," so we pulled over. We will hopefully make it to the beach tomorrow and then on to Panama! 

Monday, August 6, 2012

Costa Rica

I again left my camera in the car, so pictures tomorrow!

Things we've been enjoying so far:
1. Licuados -- fruit smoothies, usually some various options for the tropical fruit, mango and banana are usually best, also with milk
2. Popsicles -- they were all over Mexico, but I finally found another one tonight. 
3. Chocolate Milk -- this is really only A, but he gets it everywhere we go. 
4. The roads in Costa Rica -- they are so nice, mostly without topes!
5. Internet Everywhere -- Costa Rica again has internet in every hotel and almost every restaurant
6. Using Credit Cards - we thought we'd lost that ability when leaving Mexico, but here everyone takes credit cards and US dollars
7. Taking USD out of ATMs -- I had been freaking out about using our US dollars when exchanging money at the border, etc. Turns out we can take it out of ATMs again, this makes me feel much better
8. Wildlife - we are starting to appreciate birds and butterflies more since our Honduran adventure, but we still like lizards and pigs best

Costa Rica has been the richest country we have seen since Mexico, this is not totally unexpected, just a change of pace. It has meant the roads are really nice. We drove through Nicargua in two days, this is somewhat due to the heat, but also due to the fact that I've been there before and us getting annoyed at expensive hotels and getting pulled over by a cop.

Our first night in Costa Rica we stayed pretty close to the border, in a city called Liberia. Turns out Liberia has an airport, so it is a one night stop-over for people flying in to do adventure tours and such. The city had not one, but two Best Westerns. You could tell it was much richer than Nicargua coming in, but the quality of the roads and seeing McDonalds and Burger Kings. This was the first place we have felt sort of safe driving at night (back from the super market).

Yesterday we tried to stay in San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica, hoping we'd enjoy some museums and some more city stuff that we hadn't done since Mexico. We stopped at a Burger King of all things to get some wifi to look up hotels. We starred four hotels that were close to the city center and went to look at them (even a best western), when we drove around the first neighborhood it was completely deserted. It seems like there are a lot of really fancy houses, but they are all behind barbed wire and gates, which did not give us a great feeling for walking alone at night. We then drove to the neighborhood (city center) where the Best Western was. Everything again seemed to be shutting down (around 5pm), but there were people everywhere, including a bunch of drug addicts and prostitutes. I had read on one of the hotels websites "no sex tourism," but I didn't really think too much about it until I realized why they had to state that. We decided to drive North and stay near the National Park and hike the next day. The national park had some of the nicest manicured trails I've ever seen (albeit only about 5km of trails), beat only by a set in Texas that no one had used. 

Tonight we are staying in Cartago after failing to find a locksmith in San Jose to change the lock on our trunk in preparation for shipping the car across the Darien Gap. We found a hotel near the beautiful Basilica near the downtown, we can see it from the window of our very strange hotel. 

Costa Rica also has Walmarts, which we have not seen since Guatemala. The nice thing about Walmart is the ability to buy large things of water and that they sell granola bars. Most granola bars down here are more candy than substantial snack, it is nice to be able to buy them somewhere. We generally end up eating granola bars for breakfast or lunch on the go. The funny thing about Walmart here is its a nice store, they play classical music and everything is meticulously organized. I'm not really sure why this is, but it's interesting.

Friday, August 3, 2012


We made it successfully through Honduras and are now in Nicaragua. We've been off internet for a while, it's sort of a long story (which will be detailed after the brief summary). I left my camera in the car, so a photo update will have to come later.

1. My father was mostly correct, the food in Honduras is fried and not very good.
2. Go see a cloud forest if you're in Honduras, very cool stuff.
3. We met a crazy tour guide at a overall bad hotel that took us up into the small towns and cloud forest of Santa Barbra Mountain, where we met some wonderful people and saw some cool things.
4. It's increasingly difficult to find hotels with wifi or anywhere that takes credit cards.
5. We can't stop drinking smoothies, it must be all the awesome tropical fruit.
6. Speaking of tropical fruit, we tried Naranjaliia, some crazy avocado that tasted like anise, a strange variety of raspberry and some fresh passion fruit. All were delicious except the avocado.
7. We got lost in a coffee plantation and had to slide down the side of the mountain.
8. We got out hiked by a man in jeans, that did not break a sweat in the most humid of climates.
9. We saw a man selling a monkey by the side of the road today. A started screaming when he saw it.

The long of it:

The crossing from Guatemala to Honduras was pretty uneventful, the boarder was much quieter and cleaner than most we'd seen. We headed straight to the Copan Ruins, since we missed all of the other Mayan ruins when we decided to skip the Yucatan Peninsula/Northern Guatemala. This was A's first ruins and I believe the farthest out ones. They were pretty cool, but a lot smaller than I remembered Chichen Itza being when I was younger (maybe I was just the smaller one...). We stayed that night in the town of Copan Ruins, which was cute and touristy.

We found a hotel online (the D&D) that was near Lake Yajoa and brewed their own beer, from everything I read online it seemed really cool. We drove there the next day, only it was not cool at all. The space was nice, but the beer was bad, the food was worse and the crowd was horrible. We were kept up all night by some drunk college kids' renditions of Hotel California. There was one redeeming factor though, we met a crazy English expat tour guide (Malcolm) whose specialty was birds. I had read online a lot about cloud forests in Honduras and really wanted to visit one. It seemed like most of them were inaccessible with our car. I had read online that there were tours up to Santa Barbra mountain (just above Lake Yajoa). When we found him at the brewery that night, he said that he couldn't do the tour like he usually does because the road up to the mountain was under repair. He said if we really wanted to go he could possibly do a three day tour, one day hike up, one day on the mountain and one day down, staying up near the mountain. Since we had not done much hiking yet on the trip, we decided to do it, though he couldn't leave until the day after. The next day, we ended up joining him for a boat ride out on the lake looking at birds (which  I think would have made my mother the bird watcher super jealous) the next day. We also got to check out a really awesome waterfall park that day.

Our tour guide had traveled all over the world, so he had some interesting stories. Mostly, he seemed to be trying to live as much off the grid as possible. He'd stumbled upon Lake Yajoa and the brewery and realized he could make a living. We hiked up to a town above the lake called El Dorado, walking through various villages along the way. It was nice to see Honduras not from the car. We hiked a bit around the mountain before going to visit the local family we were going to stay with. The family turned out to be super sweet and the mother was a great cook (there were also two adorable daughters running around). A got to practice his Spanish, which is getting pretty good. Turns out there were two folks from the Peace Corps in town until about March, when the Peace Corps pulled out of Honduras. Apparently, there were a serious of incidents where a Peace Corps member was shot on a bus and another was raped and they deemed the country unsafe. This came at a really unfortunate time for the village since the Peace Corps members were trying to setup a library and training for nature guides in town. They are trying to add a visitor center to the mountain in order to help protect the forest land (which is being overtaken by coffee farming). The girl that had been working there had set up a beautiful library with equipment, computers, etc, but there was no one there to train anyone.

The whole area around Lake Yajoa is really pretty, but the cloud forest was definitely something different than we'd seen before. Much like a rain forest, everything is extremely damp. All the trees have many varieties of climbing plants on them as well as moss that holds droplets of water. The ground is covered in a layer of damp leaves, mud and fallen plants. There are thousands of air plants everywhere, where snails, lizards, etc feed. A got covered in about 1000 bug bites after forgetting bug spray. I will put up pictures soon, since I probably can't do it justice. The whole thing was really enjoyable and it was nice to have some home cooked meals.

Thursday, July 26, 2012


A hotdog in Guatemala

I haven't written anything about food in this blog. Most people that know me would say I'm fairly obsessed. On this trip we've had a chance to try some amazing things, but mostly it's been hard scheduling everything and just making sure we are eating regular enough meals. Also, A doesn't care that much about food. Generally, he humors me, but on this trip it's not always possible. We have gotten into the habit of stopping by any Walmart we see to stock up on granola bars to keep in the car for breakfast/any random time we are hungry and cannot stop.

I can say that neither of us got sick in Mexico, though! Which for me is probably a miracle, considering the copious amounts of sketchy salsas and agua frescas I consumed along the way. We generally got by in Mexico by just stopping at random taco stands/ restaurants on the way and almost all of them were delicious. Our most disappointing meals were actually at sit down places. 

In Guatemala, it's been a bit more difficult. Tonight we are in Chiquimula, a quite busy little city ~50km from the Honduras boarder. We spent two days in Lake Atitlan, which was breathtakingly beautiful, but very very touristy. This made it more expensive and just more annoying to find good food and get around. On our last morning there I made A come with me to get some coffee at a place we had driven by a few days before (he doesn't drink coffee). The guy turned out to be a crazy ex-pat who was heading to Japan shortly (we were just there in May). We chatted with him for a while about his plans, our trip, what to do in Antigua (our next stop, and his shop (which A called a "coffee cult," where expats with crazy stories kept stopping in). When we tried to pay, he brought us into the back of the shop and showed us his roasting machine, different beans (all local that he roasts on site) and sent us home with a few pounds of coffee and an awesome bag made out of a coffee bean bag. If you're ever in Panajachel (on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala) I would definitely recommend stopping in (Crossroads Cafe). It was also the first long conversation A and I have had with another person since leaving LA.

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala from our bike tour

We spent a night in Antigua, probably the second most touristy place we've been. We did get to have some okay coffee at a place recommended by our friend from Panajachel. The coffee shop although looking like it could have been pulled from San Francisco, turned out to be creepily Christian, which we discovered via some magazines on the table called "Relevant." We also had some great French food at a place called "Hector's" that had no sign on the door, but did have Brooklyn IPA? I have no idea how it got there. Probably the strangest part of the night was accidentally walking into a giant Guatemalan carnival, where people were packed so tight you could barely move. People were waiting on line for rides while other rides buzzed within inches of their faces, it was quite a spectacle.

Tomorrow we head to Honduras to see the Copan ruins. Honduras is supposed to be the most painful border crossing since they require multiple copies of everything (I read one person said the office floor at immigration is covered in stacks of paper). We plan to get there early. My father has a theory that Honduras has the worst food in the world, we will test that and report back!

Monday, July 23, 2012

¿Cómo se conduce a través de México?

La Mesia, Guatemala (*not my photo)

The google translate (I haven't made it to past tense yet in my spanish lessons) translation of "how did you get through mexico?" 

This is what the Guatemalan border guy asked us when we told him we had driven from San Francisco. Going from Mexico to Guatemala was fairly simple, it took about an hour and costs ~20 dollars. A few days ago we found out we actually had our car in Mexico illegally. When you cross over into Mexico you are supposed to get a temporary import permit, which we failed to do. When reading about his online, we couldn't find anyone else who had done this trip and not gotten this permit. According to the Mexican government, if you don't have it you can be either fined, incarcerated or have your car permanently impounded. It looked like the only safe option was to get a 3-5 day exemption from the government and drive back to the boarder of the US. Since we were all the way in Oaxaca, this was not going to happen. After reading about it, we decided to just go to the boarder as soon as possible and try our luck (and feign ignorance). We read a lot of stuff online and picked La Mesia as our boarder crossing, it is supposed to be the easiest and least trafficked. 

When we reached the boarder town it was of course a jumble of car, people, animals, etc. A describes this process as "trampling through the border" We drove through some traffic cones and past some government-y offices and then there was a sign that said welcome to Guatemala. It looks like again, we accidentally skipped some steps to leaving Mexico (you are supposed to cancel your vehicle permit and get a certificate saying so as well as have Mexican authorities check all your paperwork). All would be okay as long as we got our Guatemalan passport stamp and vehicle permit. After waiting for the vehicle counter guys to finish breakfast, he started checking our paperwork. He asked for the proof of cancelling the Mexican permit, once we convinced him we didn't have it, he seemed not to care and filled the rest of the stuff out. An hour later we were driving through Guatemala, with plenty of time to make it to lake Atitlan (where we are staying for two nights).

Lago Atitlan on the drive into Panajachel

In other news:

1. I drove today for the first time! Not so bad. I did this only after convincing A that he could not eat his Chile Relleno and river of beans while driving.

2. Panajachel, the town we are staying in, has more tourists than we've seen this entire trip. Including a high school basketball team that came here without even learning to say hello in spanish.

3. Chiapas (the state in Mexico) is absolutely beautiful and I wish we could have spent more time there (we were racing to the border with our illegal car).

4. We ate Pizza for the first time today, after failing to find our intended burger place. A described the pizza as "bowling alley" quality.

5. Topes in Guatemala are called "tumulos"

6. Guatemalans think Americans are going to steal their babies. I better stop smiling at all the cute babies here.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Driving in Mexico

As A points out, we have not technically driven all the way through Mexico yet. BUT, we have already learned a few things:

1. Topes=Reductors=Cruces de los Peatones=Cruces de los Escolares=enormous speed bumps and they all equal come to a complete stop or scrape the underside of your car. Sometimes its not possible not to scrape the underside of your car they're so large. They are put near towns/crossings/villages/markets/cities, etc. Sometimes they appear to be constructed by the locals in order for you to stop so they can try and sell things.

2. If there is an option for a toll road, take it. Even if said toll road is 2x the length, take it.

3. Tolls seemed expensive when we were first driving through Mexico (sometimes up to 30 dollars per day), but are definitely worth it.

4. If the locals tell you there is only one way through to Oaxaca, believe them. Your paved road will turn into a dirt road that is "tan feo." This translates to potholes the size of your car and rivers of mud. The one way through was only barely acceptable.

5. Watch out for dogs, cats, donkeys, horses, goats, chickens, pigs, people, farm equipment, pieces of tire, clothing, enormous holes, rocks, missing road, etc etc etc. Dead animal count: 4 dogs, 1 cat, 1 dolphin, 1 bird, 1 fish and infinite butterflies into the windshield of our car.

6. We may have illegally taken our car into Mexico (oops). More on this once we get to Guatemala.

If you'd like to hear more:

As you can see below, coming east on 200 it appears there are three paths to get to the road North to Oaxaca:

View Larger Map

If you'd like to laugh at us a bit, please see page two of our spot track. Since all the roads looked the same on the map, we decided to take the second one since it looked shortest and least curvy (these roads were all up mountains). When driving on 200 between the first two segments we came to stopped traffic and saw lots of black smoke. It turned out a truck was on fire, they could not put it out, so they were waiting for it to blow up. We thought to ourselves, well that's okay since there's another road! We went back to take the first track. The first road is pretty bad, a few km in we hit a town. Part of the road is totally unpaved and there are speed bumps that we cannot cross without scratching the hell out of the bottom of our car. We decide to press on anyway. The road continues to deteriorate. Eventually the road becomes dirt and we go on it slowly for a few km until it turns into gravel and realize that we will not make it on this road. We turn around to drive the 1.5 hours back to the main road. We stop to ask a construction crew about it and they were not too sure, but believed the only way to go was through Puerto Escondito (which is the bottom of the East-most track on the map above.

We finally get back to the road and start driving, once we get to the second path there is a sign that says Oaxaca, we decide to go ahead and try it.  This road is in MUCH better condition than the last one, it's paved, there aren't too many potholes, seems like everything is going well. About 4km from where the two roads meet, there start being unpaved patches. Now this is pretty normal in Mexico and we figure since they are ending and there is paved road, it must be fine. At some point there stops being any pavement. We get up to a town that's in the clouds and ask a passing truck (that is COVERED in mud) about the road condition. He tells us it is "muy feo" and that we wont make it unless someone carries us up. This is really disappointing since we already had done this once, it was getting later and we had to go back down this super twisty turny road to get back to the point we were just at.

Once we get back to the main road, it is getting late. We decide to find a hotel. In the very first town there are hotels, but they look kinda sketchy. We decide to try and make it to Puerto Escondito, which is much larger. This was a mistake since it was getting dark. At some point A tells me "don't freak out if someone throws a brick through the window." Not sure how I wouldn't freak out if that happened, but OK. Right as there are the last bits of daylight we find a hotel. We go in and ask how much. It turned out to be the most expensive hotel we have stayed in (730 pesos), had no wifi, the restaurant was closed (we had not eaten dinner at this point), we appeared to be the only guests at the hotel and it started thunderstorming. We thought someone was going to murder us in our sleep.

Anyway, moral is, always ask for directions from multiple people and do not trust google maps. The next day we drove another beautiful mountain road that took us all day to get to Oaxaca.

Oaxaca was great, after driving for two full days we stayed for two nights. We saw some museums, went on a long walk and went to some evening gallery openings. I think Oaxaca may have been too cool for us. They are totally into food, coffee and biking. There was even some type of bike party or critical mass going on on friday night (followed by a bike race saturday)! Oaxaca is super lively at night, with people out walking all around. A even caught some pickpockets in action on line for some potato chips.

Here is our favorite art exhibit:

Art Gallery, Oaxaca, Mx

If you can't tell, its the word made out of honeycomb. There were live bees crawling all over it. The water is made of honey. There were also other honeycomb art. 

That's it for tonight. Planning to cross into Guatemala the day after tomorrow!