While today we only had scheduled a drive of moderate length, around 240 miles, we also had the infamous Costa Rica/Panama border to cross, and this explained why we were packed and ready to go outside the hotel a shade after 5.30am, just as it was getting light! After completely emptying the hotel’s complimentary supply of coffee, which was to be found in the lobby, we drove the short distance needed to rejoin the Pan-American Highway, and off we went into the Costa Rican countryside!
We had been told that the road to the border was largely in excellent condition, and the first half of the journey certainly didn’t disappoint! The road was very smooth, and we passed over the most incredible ravines and through some really beautiful mountains. The highlight was most definitely a river that we came across, and as we were waiting for Claudio and Chris on the motorbike to catch up with us, we decided to disembark the vehicles and take a look at this river from the bridge.
It was wide and quite fast flowing, with a large muddy bank on one side leading up to the jungle’s border. A sign on the bridge warned us about alligators, and before long we had spotted several of them basking on the banks. It’s amazing what a wonderful life these alligators have; nice warm sun, a river all to themselves, no pesky animals coming to try and eat them…all they do the whole day is sit there until they get hungry, upon which they go and grab the odd child who happens to be swimming around at the time…
After trying to persuade Clemens to go down and play/wrestle with the alligator, to which he refused unfortunately, we got back into the vehicles and continued on our way. The beautiful scenery kept on getting better and better until we reached the coast and travelled beside it for some way. Through the trees fringing the beaches we got glimpses of azure water and crashing waves…it took every ounce of our resolve to carry on driving and not turn off for the beach to have a quick swim!
If only the day could have continued like this though, for before long the clouds darkened and the rain started coming down. The road started getting much worse, and the speeds we could therefore achieve were reduced. On one occasion how, this did not prevent Nik and Clemens from striking an unavoidable pothole, and you can see from the picture the pain in their faces and the effect the pothole had on the car! Fortunately though, no damage was done, and we preceded to the border with no hassle, but just one incident.
This one incident was around 30km from the border and there was some road which was being repaired. The only way around the roadworks was an extremely rough and potholed stretch of dirt track. To capture the challenge of getting the car across this stretch, Claudio got out of the van to fit some cameras onto the side of the car. In doing so though, he mistakenly hit the emergency stop button, and the car shut down completely.
Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem as you would just restart the car with the ignition key, but as you know, since El Salvador we have had to start the car with the laptop. This meant starting the laptop which, being old and very slow, takes around 10 minutes to boot up the program we need. During this time, Nik and Clemens were getting absolutely soaked in the car, and we were backing up traffic for hundreds of metres. While we weren’t particularly chuffed with this, Claudio was as he had just found a way to get a bit of drama going if the project ever got a little too boring for the camera!
Anyway, it wasn’t long before the car was up and running again, and the brave SRZero easily conquered the stretch of shoddy road. It struck us again how remarkably resilient this car is despite its very low ground clearance. I guess we should have a little more faith in it given some of the road we have already crossed, but given the fact that we still have over 13,000km left of this journey, we don’t want to even come close to damaging anything!
Onwards we travelled until just 1km away, the traffic ground to a complete and utter halt. Nothing was moving, and hundreds upon hundreds of cars were sitting there hooting away. Further inspection revealed possibly the stupidest reason for a gridlock; normally there is one lane going out of Costa Rica into Panama, and vice versa. However, on this occasion, somebody decided they didn’t want to queue in the right lane, so they moved over into the left lane and tried to seed towards the border. Other people saw this guy doing this, and followed him. But this meant that the cars coming from Panama had a road with vehicles coming to towards them, and no where to go! So the border guards had to shut down the border until the situation got resolved on the Costa Rican side. Nobody was doing anything constructive to fix the situation, and it was absolute chaos all around!
This did not look good for our schedule, and I already had visions of us having to spend the night sleeping in the van! Nonetheless, we put the time to good use and started on the paperwork needed to allow us to cross the border with the 3 vehicles. In the meantime, a fixer was trying to organise for us to somehow get through the traffic jam, but nothing would help.
Eventually, we strapped a blue flashing police light onto Chris’s bike (a useful piece of equipment the KPMG El Salvador had given us) and pretended to be police escorting the van and SRZero to the front. And can you believe it, this outrageous stunt actually worked! The trucks and cars parted off the road and onto the verges, and we drove straight through to the front of the border queue!
Even though this was great and sped us up enormously, we still had another 2 hours of back and forth paperwork and bureaucracy to complete. However, at some point, the customs officials realised who we were, and the boss came down to explain to the official dealing with us that we had been specially cleared by the British Embassy to receive diplomatic status, and that we should be pushed straight through the border! I have to say that from this point onwards, we were treated very well, and after just a few minutes we were on our way again! Quite an amazing turn of events as we had no idea this would happen, and this diplomatic status meant that we couldn’t be stopped at any of the police checkpoints found on the roads here, no speeding fines, nothing!
So, with the border passed after 5 hours of waiting in the rain, we headed the 50km toward David where we had organised a hotel where we could stay and charge the car. Upon arriving and plugging in the car, we found out that the circuit breakers the hotel used in their fuse box were actually broken. So in the end, we wired the car directly into the mains supply with only a huge 70 amp breaker standing between us and absolute ruin should something short circuit (a circuit breaker is used to cut power when a very large current is drawn from a device, and this normally occurs during a short circuit malfunction). But with the car on charge, it was now time for food and bed, because yet another early start awaited us the next day!