That Time I Was Apprehended at the Nica Border
Ok so maybe that’s a bit much. But anyway, this is the tale of how I lost and recovered my drone at the Costa Rica/Nicaragua border. It is a story of love, loss, despair, frustration and pure joy – I only hope this post can warn fellow drone enthusiasts of the potential disaster that may ensue if they decide to take a drone into Nicaragua.
After waiting 2 hours for Costa Rican immigration, Nicaraguan immigration was a breeze! That is until I reached customs. I put my bag on the belt behind Liam’s (my new mate from NZ who I just met in the queue) and walked through the metal detector, expecting to stroll straight through the final checkpoint. The customs official pulled mine and Liam’s bag aside to inspect it – no worries I thought, just a formality right?
She opened up my backpack and pulled a few things out, while Liam got the same treatment next to me. When asked what was inside his black satchel, Liam replied “just a camera”. Without checking, the official nodded and waived him through. As it turned out Liam has the same DJI Mavic Pro drone as I did! The official pointed to the big white box inside my backpack and asked me what it was. “A drone” I said naively, not expecting any further attention.
The official smiled at me and shook her head, “not allowed’. At first I thought she was having a lend, as I was certain I had checked the drone laws for each country I was meant to travel to. But the more people that gathered around the table looking at the drone, discussing it amongst themselves, the more I realised that I had been wrong – drones had in fact been banned in Nicaragua since November 2014.
Long story short, I decided to leave my drone in ‘secure’ lockup, racking up a huuuuuge fee of $2 per day for storage. Unsure of how safe my drone would be, I reluctantly handed the box over to the official, completed some paperwork, then finished up with customs and crossed over the border feeling rather pissed with myself.
I ended up staying in Nicaragua for 17 days and had an absolute blast, despite the uneasiness in the back of my mind that my drone wasn’t going to be there when I returned. I arrived at the border ready to pick up the drone and make a quick escape to San Jose for my flight to Honduras. And thus began the most frustrating 3 hours of my life.
I sat in an office for 45 mins while Norman the customs manager rifled through 4 desks trying to find the key to the storage room. I was then escorted to the storage room where I was told I needed to return to the immigration desk to pay my fee. I politely but firmly asked to see my drone before paying the fee – just so I wouldn’t lose another $34 on a potential $1500. After 30 minutes of searching I was invited into the storage room to join the hunt.
I finally set my eyes on the glorious white box amidst a pile of confiscated TVs, beer, food and electrical goods!
I spent another hour or so being bumped around various offices in order to pay the fee – I became quite friendly to the security guard who asked for my passport the first 3 times I passed back and forth, but didn’t bother after that. At last the payment cleared and I ran back to the storage building waving my receipt above my head. I was done! Or so I thought. There I was, drone in my left hand, payment receipt in my right hand and the office wouldn’t let me leave until I had signed one more piece of paper. Which wouldn’t have been an issue if the office printer hadn’t stopped working. With a little bit of help from IT it was up and running and I was done! But I had to be escorted back across the Costa Rican border (I wasn’t even allowed to carry it!) which seemed a bit extreme.
So here’s some advice for anyone looking to travel to Nicaragua with a drone – don’t do it. You can apply for consent to fly through the Nicaraguan Institute of Civil Aeronautics (INAC) but it is apparently very uncommon to be approved. Try and find a work around before you get to the border, it’s not worth the nagging feeling in the back of your mind that it has been sold off to some geezer who’s just going to crash it straight away! The next test will be getting approval before I enter Guatemala! Or maybe I’ll just fly it over the border and pick it up on the way through…