Driving from the USA to PanamaTo Smuggle or Not To Smuggle... That Is the Question
We didn't plan on smuggling RC through any borders, but we quickly discovered that the advice from the consulates didn't always match what the guards at the border thought was appropriate. We had all of RC's paperwork in order for each country, but we played it by ear whether we announced our feline friend's existence or followed the old adage that silence is golden.
Here's what we did to prepare for our drive, and our actual experiences driving from the United States through Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.
Paperwork, Paperwork, and More Paperwork
I contacted the consulates in the USA about each country's requirements to bring a pet. Mexico requires that the cat have his Rabies shot within the last year plus a vet's international health certificate completed no more than 72 hours before you enter their country. All of the Central American countries also required a Rabies certificate within the last year, a vet's international health certificate within the last 3 months that had been certified by the USDA (Mexico doesn't require the USDA certification), and authenticated by the country's consulate (I wasn't sure what "authenticated" meant, but it was just a stamp by the consulate showing they had seen the papers). We opted not to go to Belize because they required special import papers, extra taxes, and possible quarantine. Beautiful available domain names now!
RC needed his annual physical and shots the beginning of May, which was two months before our departure. The vet not only gave us 10 copies of the standard rabies certificate, but also completed and signed 10 International Health Certificates. This gave us 10 original copies of the International Health Certificate, the state's Rabies certificate, and the bill showing the other annual inoculations for FVRCP, FIP, and Feline Leukemia. These additional innoculations aren't required, but they're routine for RC so we figured we'd throw in a copy to keep everybody happy.
I called the USDA's office before I sent all this paperwork to let them know why I needed so many copies certified. In the envelope to the USDA's office in our home state, I included all 10 sets of the documents, a check for $16.50, and a self-addressed stamped return envelope. The USDA stamped each of the 30 documents. This process had the added benefit that all of the documents looked so much more official ... a big plus when you're traveling to countries that have lots of bureaucrats.
When I received the stamped documents back from the USDA, I then sent one set of documents to each consulate requesting that they add their seal of approval. I again included self addressed stamped envelopes. The Panama consulate called to say the health certificate couldn't be authenticated because it was more than 15 days old. They gave me the address of the Panama Consulate in San Jose, Costa Rica and suggested we get RC re-examined a few days before heading to Panama. The consulates from Honduras and El Salvador called to say there was a $10-15 fee for their certification ... they hadn't mentioned any charge when I initially contacted them. I got checks off to each consulate for the appropriate amount. When Costa Rica's consulate returned the paperwork, it stated there would be a $40 fee that we would have to pay at the Costa Rican border. (Continue)
It took a total of 6 weeks to get all the documents back from the various consulates. We scheduled an appointment with the vet the morning we were departing so we could get a current health certificate for Mexico.
Crossing the Borders
At the Mexican and Guatemalan borders, the officials asked what our cat's name was, told us he was "lindo" (beautiful or lovely in Spanish), and were genuinely taken by him. We had to bring him into the Guatemalan office so the boss could see him, too. The officials barely glanced at RC's paperwork, but simply looked at RC, saw a healthy cat, and passed us through with a smile.
We found our best way to get RC into a hotel was to bring him inside while we checked in. When we'd ask if they had a room for 2 people and a cat, RC seemed to invariably pop his head out of the canvas shoulder carrying case. The proprietor would smile and laugh at our unexpected companion. We never got turned away when they got to see RC. The few times we failed to bring him in and simply inquired if it would be okay to have our cat in the room, we were turned away.
Tabbies are not common in Mexico and Central America. Many people asked whether he was a cat or a tiger. At first we thought they were just kidding. When we realized how rare his coat coloration was in Latin America, we understood how exotic he looked.
The extra leg work of getting all the paperwork in order before we left the States really paid off for our first two border crossings: Mexico and Guatemala. When we entered El Salvador our border guide told us that we'd have to quarantine RC. This was in direct contradiction with the information we received from the Salvadorian consulate in the US. Although RC was seen by most of the officials at the El Salvador border, we decided to skip going to the quarantine building. I guess the bribe required to get Mark's passport back was enough that no one cared about the cat. The last official glanced at our paperwork and waved us through.
El Salvador was the first border where RC technically was smuggled across, but not his last. The Honduras border at Amatillo was the worst we crossed ... personally I'd recommend you use a different border because every other person we've talked to who used this crossing had major hassles ... regardless of whether they were bringing a cat or not.
As we exited El Salvador and entered Honduras, we were on alert. The crowds of people, the long delays, and the excessive bribes required were a new experience to us. We decided to keep RC's paperwork handy, but only mention him if the officials inquired. RC and I stayed in the car with the doors locked and me on constant guard while Mark took care of all the paperwork for us. The officials only cared about getting their extra money and never glanced in the vehicle. None of us were really smugglers, but RC was becoming an expert smugglee!
The experience in Honduras made us even more cautious as we approached Nicaragua. We again didn't mention RC, but I doubt it would have mattered. The Nicaraguans have a very systematic procedure for entering and exiting their country. While Mark got us through the red tape, several curious children leaned into the window and studied a map I had of Central America. They were anxious to teach me new Spanish words and to learn new English ones. I'm sure if I let them see RC they would have been thrilled, but we didn't want to risk being told there was a quarantine requirement so I left RC sleeping on the floorboard.
Costa Rica turned out to be another easy border crossing. Both Mark and I went into the building to fill in the necessary paperwork. We parked the vehicle in the shade and left RC in the car with the windows cracked and the ice bottles tucked around him. A short time after we entered the immigration building a gentleman came to tell us our cat was in distress. I handed Mark all my papers and returned to the vehicle. RC was sitting on the dashboard, panting, and wide eyed. I jumped inside and noted the temperature -- it was only 72 degrees. I think the noise of a lot of people outside the vehicle and no familiar faces had upset him. I sat with him and he immediately calmed down. When the official came to inspect the vehicle he didn't ask about RC or his paperwork so we didn't have to pay the $40 fee.
We got conflicting stories about whether RC would have to be quarantined in Panama. The consulate in the US said we'd only need current papers, but one of the travel guides suggested that RC would have to go into quarantine for 21 days. We stopped at the consulate in San Jose and the official was rather wishy-washy about the requirement ... he implied that the worse case would be we'd have to pay a bribe to get him through without quarantine. A vet in Costa Rica told us that the quarantine in Panama is one of the worst ... he suggested if RC was quarantined, he'd be lucky to come out alive and he'd definitely not be healthy at the end of his time.
I received an unsolicited e-mail message from Alvaro (no doubt someone trying to help keep the info I provide up-to-date) in September 2001 that said that Panama is moving away from quarantine for cats and dogs from the USA and OECD countries. According to the e-mail message, you might be able to avoid quarantine if your pet's health certificate is endorsed by the Panamanian Consulate and an attorney or acquaintance in Panama has to request an exemption from quarantine in writing before the Panamian Health Minister 2 weeks before the trip - indicating arrival and pet information. I don't know the accuracy of this information, but it's worth contacting the Panamian Consulate and checking. Alvaro also warned that "negotiating" with Panamian officials could get you charged with bribery.
We decided not to announce RC's presence to the Panamian officials. I wasn't sure this plan was going to work because on the drive to the border, RC was very active in the car ... unusual for him after the first hour or so. Magically, as soon as we got to within a half hour of the border, RC headed for the floor and we didn't hear from him again until we were through the crossing. The paperwork took a long time and I chatted with an official for almost 45 minutes while RC slept at my feet. The guard never asked to inspect the vehicle, but he did glance into the windows. Fortunately, the official couldn't see RC because he had snuggled up between the door and the seat.
We had a blast driving through Mexico and Central America, but decided to sell the car and fly to our next destination. I wouldn't hesitate to make this trip again with RC. If you'd like more details about which borders we used, costs (both official and bribes), and time at each border, then click here.
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