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Costa Rica (with Guido)

11-13 FEB 2020

February 11th started with me looking for my wallet. Turned out, it had fallen out of my pocket at the pool bar in our Managua hotel Mozonte last night. Bar keeper found it and gave it to me with a smile. Nothing was missing. Wonderful people in Nicaragua. Honest and friendly. Guido and I liked it here in Nicaragua, but it was time to move on: Costa Rica.

We drove to Managua's main airport, returned the rented pick-up truck and tried to find our way to our plane. Different from all other airports I have been before on this trip, they didn't have a General Aviation Terminal, which basically means that everything is optimized for handling airliners, lacking procedures and facilities optimized for small private aircraft. We finally found the person in charge of private flights and he helped me to find the relevant airport and ATC offices, pay the fees, etc. Overall, bureaucracy was less than in Mexico, but very time consuming and much, much more expensive. Had to pay more than 200 USD for this 2-day stop. E.g. they required the use of a bus to go to the aircraft (which was parked only a few meters from the terminal) and charged 20 USD each time it was used. They charged a 44 USD passenger handling fee for Guido, a 100 USD fee to be allowed to fly into their airspace and so on. The actual overnight parking fee wasn't that bad, but still 3 times higher than in Mexico.

The wind was unchanged from two days ago, still blowing with more than 20 knots, gusting 30, but straight down the runway. As this was my first flight with a passenger on this trip, I had to lower the weight. I already left some stuff in El Salvador and now emptied my two 5-gallon fuel boxes into the wing, enough for the planned short flight to Liberia, Costa Rica. Guido arrived with very small luggage and isn't that heavy either.

After takeoff, I saw that the altitude transmitted by the transponder was not correct. I have had this issue before, but only briefly, now it was really bad. Had to switch off Mode Charlie which of course was noticed by ATC. However, they allowed us to continue the flight to Costa Rica. Didn't want to land in that wind anyhow.

It is fun to fly with a passenger and Guido produced a nice movie from the clips and pictures he took during that flight.

We followed the line of volcanoes. First to Masaya, the one which people visit at night to see the red glowing lava, then the impressive Mombacho, where we had been the other day. After the border to Costa Rica, we followed the cost line. Ground speed was again low, but it was still a flight of less than two hours. Liberia tower gave us an early "heads-up", the wind was - as in Managua - blowing with more than 20 knots, but straight down the runway. You don't really have many good options with these central American Cessna 140 flights. Usually, no other international airport exists within your little reach, so all other fields are emergency options anyhow. And you have little information about those fields, especially you usually don't have their winds. In the US, most airports have an AWOS, uncommon here. In the US, the ADS-B-In connected Foreflight shows me the weather of airports outside the AWOS/ATIS reception range (usually less than 40 miles, due to line-of-sight restricted by low altitude and terrain). In the US, I can even see the holes in the cloud cover on the uplinked ground weather radar, when flying above them. And I can ask flight service and talk to people who understand my needs.

But here, in the Nicaragua / Costa Rica border lands, nobody is used to VFR needs. You are on your own and your decisions are usually based on what you can see with your own eyes ahead of your aircraft.

Which wasn't too bad. Not too many clouds. Nobody complained that Mode Charlie was missing. No other traffic was ever close to us. Liberia has a lot of charter flights. Typically, A320s and 737s and they could be an issue, as I usually stay high when approaching an airport, being able to land there, when the engine quits and thus cutting their vertical trajectory outside the 5-mile radius of the tower control zone. But I don't do long finals and therefore are - most of the time - not cutting their lateral flight path. Besides, all the US charter flights showed up on Foreflight, thanks to the ADS-B out mandate which is in effect in the US since January 1st 2020. We landed just behind one of those US carriers, shipping 200 tourists to Liberia's beautiful beaches.

Tower advised us a parking position and the typical mix of officials approached. Armed guards securing the area, immigration pre-checking the passports, customs checking luggage and - to some extend - the stuff kept in the aircraft. Additionally, an inspector appeared and told us that we are not allowed to fly this aircraft until we have either a special permission or have fixed our transponder. And they asked us which ground handling company we have contracted. I remembered, when you fly to Costa Rica, you need a ground handling company and I had emailed some, but unfortunately had forgotten to close the deal. So they got one for us and a friendly lady appeared and declared that she now works for me and I had no idea what she will charge for her services.

One by one all the officials were satisfied and left. I think, it is also curiosity that they appear in large numbers. Wouldn't one immigration official or one customs officer not be enough for such a small plane? It seems to me, many of their questions are rooted in their personal curiosity and are not required for doing their jobs. How much did this airplane cost? How much cash do you carry? Show me your cash! How long will you need to fly to Argentina?

Our ground handler Melissa did a really good job. Like Managua, Liberia doesn't have a General Aviation Terminal and all procedures are optimized for larger planes. You can tell when 3 men arrive to secure the parking position with red cones and try to secure my little tires with pieces of wood apparently made for airline tires. The handling fees they charge are not high - for an airliner. But in my opinion, they are not scaled down properly and this kills general aviation in these countries. I think Melissa understood that we are not rich. I mean, a 73-year-old Cessna 140 is not a sleek modern millionaire's toy. What she later charged us was adequate for what she and her colleagues did. But the true scandal is, that they invented all these nonsense procedures and bureaucracy for small aircraft.

The wind was still blowing like crazy and - of course - they didn't have any parking position with anchors, so I taxied to a gravel field and used my little 8 ounce hammer to place nails. It worked, two days later, they were all still in place (and nearly impossible to remove). But next time, I would carry a bigger hammer, not this lightweight child's toy.

How are people in Costa Rica in comparison to Mexico, El Salvador or Nicaragua? I really can't tell, because it would be unfair to generalize, after being there only for such a short time. But we can write about our experiences. There is no Uber and no rental cars in Liberia, the hotels at the beaches are 30 km away and the sun is burning like hell. Initially, the taxis wanted 60 USD and we negotiated them down to 45. Like Nicaragua (and unlike El Salvador and Panama), Costa Rica has its own currency with own banknotes, but it is not really needed to change your money, you can pay everything with US$, just don't expect much change, so bring small notes. The locals we met at the very touristic places in Liberia looked to me spoiled by tourist money. We stayed two nights in Liberia, using two different hotels. The first was cheap and shabby, the second was more expensive but also much, much better. But we didn't encounter the friendliness we encountered in Nicaragua, little smiles, higher prices, less service. Everyone speaks English here and if you try to communicate in Spanish, even if you say that you want to practice it, they answer in English, because they are used to speaking English with the tourists and it makes their job easier that way.

But Guido and I enjoyed two beautiful sunsets at the lovely beaches of Liberia. Costa Rica invests in eco-tourism, which means that the beaches are not spoiled by skyscrapers. The hotels and cabins are usually restricted to two floors and are set back behind the beach vegetation. Beach access is open, not parceled and restricted to hotel guests. We felt secure, even while people told us that it is not.

But we were not here for vacation, we were stranded with a plane grounded by the authority. Right at the airport they told us, that there is no mechanic available at Liberia and they requested a permit to fly without transponder to Pavos, the secondary airport in the capital San Jose. But we didn't want to fly there. With Ibu's help, I ordered a new altitude encoder to be shipped to David, Panama and this is where I wanted to go. But flying to Panama meant that not only the authorities in Costa Rica needed to approve this flight; the authorities in Panama needed to approve it as well.

February 12th, we drove to the airport, negotiating 30 USD for the drive. But getting the authorities to approve is a long process. Military is involved, as they have to accept that someone is flying into their territory without reporting altitude. Ibu and his friends pulled a lot of strings, but at 4 PM we called it a day and drove back to the beaches, now paying 16 USD for the Uber we finally managed to get.

I didn't like this situation. There was not much we could do, just wait. It is hard to relax, if you are facing parking fees of 185 USD per night and other fees of unknown, non-negotiated dimensions. But Guido's presence gave me comfort. His willingness to share the aircraft's cost burden was not accepted but appreciated and his humor and happiness made me see that - yes, we have to wait, but it is waiting in paradise.

February 13th, while enjoying a breakfast with a spectacular view over the ocean, we received the written permit from Panama and soon afterwards an email from Costa Rica's inspector, that we are allowed to fly. We headed to the airport, looking forward to fly to Panama!

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