Speeding Ticket Panama Style

The drive from Panama City to David in the north started well enough. We left around 8:00am and quickly found the Pan American Highway. Traffic was fairly light and the weather was bright, then becoming hot and humid as the day wore on.

The road surface was not perfect but the potholes were generally avoidable. I relaxed and started to enjoy motoring again. David is a city some 30 miles from the frontier with Costa Rica and approximately 300 miles from Panama City, so the driving time would not be too long. We were stopped a couple of times at police checkpoints and where the officers were friendly and thought that Bridget was great.

When we were about 45 miles from David we were following a 3 tonne delivery truck and on rounding a bend I saw more police. We were almost parallel with them before one of the officers saw Bridget and waved his arm at us and blew on his whistle. We pulled over to the side of the road as quickly as we could but because he was so late in seeing us we were clearly 40 feet past him. I reversed Bridget back up to where the patrol car was parked and the officer came over and asked me for my passport and drivers licence. I gave him these and got out of the car. It was quickly obvious that this was no ordinary checkpoint, but a speed check set-up. The second officer was writing and talking to an American male who was later joined by his oriental travelling companion. The American passed some dollars to the officer who took them and tucked them into his ticket book. I was about to say to the American ‘there are no on-the-spot-fines in Panama’ when I realised this was not a fine. The American said “No receipt eh, well no record then, fine”. With this he left.

On the roof of the patrol car was a hand-held speed gun and whenever a car came towards the checkpoint the officer would look up from his writing and squeeze the trigger, then instruct his partner to pull the car over. The gun was pointed at traffic coming from the opposite direction from which I had arrived. The way in which he was using the gun was totally against the manufacturers operating instructions and in the UK would have rendered each ticket invalid if challenged.

Then the officer said to me that I had been travelling at 92kph and the speed limit was 60 to 75kph. I said, “Is it 60 or 75, it can’t be both?” I added, “The speed gun is on the roof of your car and you were processing the American when I arrived so how do you know what speed I was travelling?”. He said that his fellow officer saw me and that is what he said my speed was!! I said that if he was that good, why bother buying a speed gun? He said that I would be fined $US66 and waited clearly expecting me to make an alternate offer. I said write out the ticket. He did this and told me to sign the form; which I refused as it was in Spanish and I couldn’t read it. He said that I was not to try to leave the country until the fine was paid, and I was somewhat impolite about what he could do with his speed gun.

The following morning we made our way to the border and took just under two hours to get through the formalities which is really quite good. We entered Costa Rica just after 10:15am and we have car insurance for this country. In Panama it appears to be optional but for Costa Rica it is a requirement and it can be purchase for $US15 at the frontier.

We have started a new navigation system. I tried to purchase a road map of Central America whilst in Panama but couldn’t get one anywhere, so I thought we would just use a compass from here on.

The drive from the frontier to San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica, was the most enjoyable relaxing drive since the Gold Coast in Australia. The road condition was generally good and the scenery was beautiful. Although only just over 220 miles from the frontier to the city the drive does take around 4½ hours largely because it is single carriageway and a very winding road. There is also a mountain range involved that is beautiful but not as breath-taking as the Andes, however it still rises 12,000 feet; that is around 2½ miles up. Bridget went up there like the proverbial rat up a drainpipe. She was showing off and I only hope that this isn’t the pride before the fall, but I was really pleased with her performance today.

San Jose is an expensive city and for the life of me I can’t figure out why. Prices are similar to many European capitals but there is no other comparison. Fuel prices here are 60% higher than Panama, hotel rooms are on par with Brussels, Vienna and Florence. Restaurants and bars are much the same as the UK in price terms but way off of that for quality. Funnily enough though according to one international report Costa Ricans are the second happiest people in the world! That is qualified as ‘happy with their cultural conditions and their government’.

We rested over Wednesday and then struck out on Thursday for Nicaragua. The road condition was once again really very good but it was only a single carriageway and quite winding so the traffic was bad and progress slow for the first 90 miles. After that getting to the frontier was a very pleasant experience with beautiful scenery including lots of mountains again. There are also several volcanoes along the route including some that are currently active. Unfortunately due to the traffic, the lack of anywhere to park and considerable low cloud I was unable to take any photos at all in Costa Rica. I think this is the first country that has happened.

The border crossing today was dreadful, taking 4 hours in all. So it was 4:00pm by the time I got back on the road still with 100 miles to go. Luckily I made it to Managua as dark fell, because I have been warned not to drive here after dark. Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in Central America which is quickly evident. The country itself it pleasant enough with varied countryside all very green. Just a couple of miles in from the border is a huge lake with two classic volcanoes on the far side. Had conditions been better it would have made a great photo.

This week is a serious driving week and tomorrow I intend to leave here, cross Honduras and make for San Salvador, capital of El Salvador. I am going to try and reach the Mexican border over the weekend.

Friday’s drive from Nicaragua to San Salvador was marred by another awful border crossing from Honduras into El Salvador. The crossing from Nicaragua into Honduras took a little over an hour but from Honduras into El Salvador took over four hours and meant driving in the dark to San Salvador, the Capital. Along the way I met up with an American author and his Costa Rican travelling companion. He said they were going to follow me all the way to the States!

Saturday and as planned Bridget and I moved on to Guatemala City and one day away from the Mexican border. Almost everyone keeps telling me that Mexico is dangerous, so it was refreshing to get another opinion today that the whole danger ‘thing’ is over hyped. Certainly we shouldn’t travel at night otherwise normal precautions are fine. I expect it to take us until the end of next week to make the US border.

It is my intention that we will enter the USA via Laredo and drive up to Dallas. From there we will continue across country to Flagstaff, Grand Cayon, Las Vegas and up to San Francisco. Who knows after that?

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