Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Playa de Cocos: My Costa Rica Nightmare

Conditions on our passage from Golfito to Bahia Culebra continued to improve. They had started off miserable when we left on Sunday morning. By Sunday evening, they became tolerable. Overnight, the seas calmed and the wind shifted south, enough so that we got a nice boost from the jib and could throttle back the engine to reducing fuel consumption and noise, yet still make better than 5 knots speed. Monday evening, they became enjoyable, the wind now coming out of the southeast with a gentle southwest swell. For an hour, we actually turned off the engines and sailed downwind under the Code 0, which brought a smile to my face. The wind eventually died down and we had to resume motoring, but we had a favorable current and made 5 knots with one engine rumbling gently at 2,000 rpm. What a relief.

On Tuesday morning, we entered Bahia Culebra and headed to Marina Papagayo to refuel. It was a beautiful morning, Renee and I were in good spirits. Things were looking up. And then our Costa Rica Nightmare began.

Our intent was to just stop at the marina to refuel and then anchor overnight to get some rest, just like we did in Golfito on the way to and from Panama. Marina Papagayo is a pretty swanky place, so I hailed them on the radio to let them know I was arriving, wanted to buy fuel, and let them direct me to the appropriate fuel dock. Instead of being welcomed and accommodated, they asked me, "Have you cleared into Costa Rica yet?" I told them, no, I haven't because we are a yacht in transit and were stopping only to refuel, not stay in Costa Rica or go ashore. They told me that they could not provide any fuel unless I could provide documents proving that I had officially cleared into Costa Rica. I told them this was a surprise and a problem for us and asked them if they could make an exception. They told me no, in no uncertain terms, and that if I wanted to buy fuel I had turn around and go back 5 miles to Playa de Coco and clear in with the Port Captain.

I duly turned the boat around and headed to Playa de Coco, resigned to spending the day dealing with officials. There was really no legitimate option, as we didn't have enough fuel to safely navigate to our next refueling/rest stop in Nicaragua. I was a little bit worried because, technically, Intermezzo needed to be out of Costa Rica for 90 days before the boat was allowed to re-enter the country and it had only been 32 days since we cleared out of Puntarenas. I wasn't overly concerned because all the documentation I had received was all handwritten and the whole clearing in/clearing out process seemed very antiquated and didn't seem to involve computers, electronic records or databases with the exception of immigration, who runs a quick electronic check of your passport to see if you are a fugitive, terrorist or other "person of interest".

After anchoring the boat off Playa de Coco, we landed the dinghy on the beach during low tide, which meant we had to haul it 30 yards up the beach for when the tide came in. The dinghy weighs close to 300 pounds and we haven't put wheels on it (yet), so it requires the two of us dragging it through the sand with all our might, three feet at a time. A good analogy for our 30 yard struggle is like being offensive linemen in a football game blocking for three first downs of grunting short yardage running plays. Thankfully, Renee and I have the strength and stamina (and good looks!) of people 20 years younger and got our dinghy to the goal posts working hard, but without killing ourselves.

We cleaned ourselves up and proceeded to the Port Captain's office. I explained our circumstances to her (the first female Port Captain in Cost Rica) and asked, "Surely a yacht doesn't have to go through the entire clearing in process just to buy 50 gallons of diesel?" She answered, "Surely, it does." Bummer. Hannah and I had cleared Intermezzo into Costa Rica at Playa de Coco back in May, so I knew the process. It takes most of day, primarily because it requires a trip to the airport and back to clear customs which takes about two hours. Renee and I resigned ourselves to spending the day doing this and then refueling in the morning, comforted somewhat by the availability of good restaurants and a high quality grocery store on shore for us to visit.

Our first stop after the Port Captain was the Immigration office, a quarter mile walk up the main street. Getting our passports stamped and the other required documents went pretty smoothly, although there was a nerve wracking ten minutes spent dealing with the fact that one document from Panama said there was no crew, just a captain on Intermezzo and another listed Renee as crew. Hard to believe we might not have been allowed to enter Costa Rica due to such a technicality, but it took some serious negotiating in Spanish to convince the official that her nation's security would not be compromised by Renee stepping foot ashore. As to me, well, I was unambiguously listed on both Panamanian forms so she could confidently stamp my passport and then I could wreak whatever havoc I wanted to.

After Immigration, it was back to the Port Captain's office, stopping briefly for smoothies and wifi on the walk back. She prepared some more papers and then it was off to the airport to get clearance from Customs. The normal taxi fare for the 15 minute trip to the airport is $40, but I knew from my previous visit that this was the "gringo fare". It took us a little while, but Renee found a taxi that would take us for $20. We clambered into the cab and sped off.

Once at the airport, you need to know that to see Customs, you need to talk to a policeman at the exit for arriving passengers. I not only knew this, but I even knew the policeman, having chatted with him while I waited for almost an hour for Customs on my previous visit. This time, the Customs official, a very serious young woman, came out after only a 15 minute wait and I filled out the required forms and gave her all the required documents, upon which she returned to her official lair behind the doors. About 20 minutes later she returned looking even more serious with what to me was a distasteful expression on her face. Not good.

Apparently Costa Rica's Custom agency does have a database for visiting yachts and Intermezzo was in it, clearly recorded as having only been out of Costa Rica for 32 days, not the required 90. Ms. Uptight Customs Official told me that she could not clear the boat into Costa Rica. I explained to her that I wasn't trying to clear the boat into Costa Rica, I just needed to buy fuel so I could safely navigate out of the country. I only needed Customs clearance for a few hours, surely she could give me a document to allow that? She responded, "Surely, I cannot."

I explained to her the impossibility of the situation. I couldn't leave Costa Rica without fuel to get me to my next port. But I couldn't buy fuel until I officially entered Costa Rica, which she wouldn't allow. I explained that it is common for yachts in transit to stop to buy fuel without fully clearing in to a country, just like passengers in an airport make connecting flights without going through immigration or customs. She didn't budge. I explained that it would be unsafe for me as a captain to take the boat and its crew out to sea without sufficient fuel. She didn't care. She told me that it wasn't Custom's role to figure this out, that it was the Port Captain's. I will refrain any commentary regarding this fucking stupid ignorant irresponsible response.

We negotiated another "local fare" taxi ride back to the Port Captain's office. I explained what had happened at Customs. The Port Captain spent the first five minutes explaining how her hands were tied, that without Customs clearance, she couldn't issue the documents needed to purchase fuel, without those documents the marina wouldn't sell me the fuel and that I was, using my words, truly fucked. I looked at her and, with complete sincerity in my voice and expression, apologized for not understanding the regulations, making a mistake and for bringing such a problem to her. I told her I couldn't leave without fuel and asked if she could do anything to help me.

In reality, we could have just gone underground and abandoned proceeding legitimately. We still had documents from Panama that would allow us to enter another country. We could get our passports stamped for leaving Costa Rica without involving Customs or the Port Captain. We could buy fuel jugs and get a ride to a gas station to buy fuel. And then we could just leave. But I really didn't want to have to deal with jugs of fuel and there was a very slight risk that if we somehow got caught, the boat could be seized. I'm also not sure how I would have left the Port Captain's office without arousing suspicion that I was going to go illegal.

The Port Captain looked at me, realized how stupid the situation was and started making phone calls to figure out how to solve this ridiculous dilemma and send me and my boat safely on our way. She rolled her eyes at me during her calls to the Custom's office, clearly frustrated at their ignorance of maritime matters and safety. It took about an hour, but she figured out a solution.

Here is how you buy fuel in Costa Rica when your boat isn't allowed by Customs to enter the country, a nightmare to be avoided if at all possible:

1. Get another taxi to the airport. This time I was able to negotiate a $45 round trip, including waiting.
2. Send your crew off to buy fuel jugs in the pouring rain.
3. Visit Customs at the airport again. Have Ms. Uptight Customs Official, with a truly sour look on her face and with palpable resentment, issue a document that says Customs has no objection to your boat leaving the Costa Rica because her boss instructed her to do so.
4. Take the taxi back to town and meet your resourceful crew who has procured four 30 liter fuel jugs from the hardware store.
5. Negotiate with the taxi driver to bring you and your fuel jugs to the gas station just outside of town, fill the jugs, and bring you back.
6. Unload the fuel jugs in the rain that is now coming down in buckets. Take refuge in a beachfront bar to catch your breath and wait for the rain to subside, where the waiter ignores you the entire time and you give up on getting a beer.
7. Carry the four jugs, weighing 55 lbs each, the 150 yards to the beach.
8. Drag your dinghy in the rapidly failing evening light into the water, pull it through the breaking surf, help your crew member aboard and anchor it in chest deep water.
9. Carry each of the four 55 lb jugs 50 yards down the beach, through the surf, through the chest deep water and, with a mighty grunt, hoist them over the gunwhales of the dinghy for your crew to receive them.
10. Since you started the day wanting to look presentable for government officials, do all of the above wearing good clothes and getting them sweaty, soaking wet and tainted wth diesel fuel.
11. When the last jug is hoisted into the dinghy, with a final hearty grunt, hoist yourself into the dinghy and motor back to the boat in the now dark anchorage.
12. Unload the four jugs from the dinghy to the boat, with more of a low moan than a grunt for this operation.
13. Strip off your sweaty, wet, diesel-tainted, once-nice clothes and take a hot shower while your amazing crew member washes such clothes in an attempt to save them.
14. Gratefully permit your crew member to take a hot shower while you drink a glass of Scotch instead of eating dinner.
15. Have you stomach inform you shortly thereafter that drinking the Scotch after sailing for 48 hours, being awake since 3 a.m., dealing with the righteously sour and truly unpleasant Ms. Uptight Customs Official, lugging 220 lbs of diesel across land and through the water wasn't such a good idea and that you should either go to bed or puke. Go to bed.
16. The next morning, take the dinghy back to the beach, haul it for only one first down this time as the tide is going out and walk to Immigration to get your passports stamped for leaving Costa Rica.
17. Realize during your walk that you left your most precious hat somewhere the day before. Feel the loss, but admit that you are not a responsible enough person with respect to hats to become attached to one ever again.
18. Get the passport stamped, this time without controversy, but still over a 30 minute process involving filling out four forms, all with the same information.
19. While you continue to deal with officialdom, have your crew go to the high quality grocery store to buy provisions.
20. Go the bank to pay the fee for your "International Zarpe", the document that allows the boat to leave Costa Rica and enter your next foreign port. This involves first sitting at a desk while a bank employee fills out forms, then waiting in line to pay the fee, plus a commission to the bank for giving you such a pleasure in the morning.
21. Walk back to the Port Captain's office. Walk gingerly, because you spent the whole day yesterday and the morning walking in sandy flip-flops which have rubbed spots on the top of your feet painfully raw.
22. Enter the Port Captain's office to her pleasantly smiling face and her finger pointing to your precious hat sitting on her desk. You aren't responsible, but you are lucky with respect to your precious hat. Triumphantly inform her you have successfully completed everything per her instructions. She is pleased to issue you your International Zarpe, you thank her profusely and she wishes you a good voyage.
23. Meet your crew member at a restaurant for breakfast, enjoyed with feelings of great relief.
24. Walk back to the dinghy, stopping off to give a small box of imported chocolates to the Port Captain as a "thank you" gift.
25. Haul the dinghy to the water for two first downs, as the tide has gone out since the first quarter.
26. Siphon 120 liters of fuel from the four jugs into the boat's tanks without causing an environmental accident but succeeding in spilling small amounts of diesel on the deck that need to be cleaned up in a responsible manner. This is why I didn't want to deal with jugs of fuel and prefer fuel docks.
27. Clean up, stow the jugs and enjoy a cold beer.

This was my Cost Rica Nightmare, mentally and physically torturous and exhausting. All for no sane reason. In hindsight, we would have saved quite a bit of time and money by going "rogue". We ended up having to deal with jugs of fuel anyway going the legit route.

Costa Rica is a beautiful country. The people are friendly (save for a certain Customs official). But compared to its neighboring countries, it is an abjectly unfriendly place for boats due to its regulations, bureaucracy and high costs. All told, I spent over $2,000 in costs and fees just to satisfy official requirements with entering, staying in and leaving Cost Rica.

We're leaving Cost Rica this evening for Nicaragua. A much easier place to buy fuel on our way to Mexico.