Today it is time for a different story. No sightseeing or lazy days. This story is about the more serious and sometimes stressful side of the trip: border crossings. Quite some of you have asked me for posts on the other side of the trip. So this time a full story about just one day. The day I crossed from El Salvador into Honduras into Nicaragua. Yes, that is two border crossings in one day.
The day starts early at about 6 at our campsite in El Salvador. I’m camping here with Mike and Lyndsay for a few days and we thought crossing the border together will be good for safety, translation help and of course entertainment. We pack and leave at about 7. I drive up front because I have the slower car plus there is still a decent chance the van will fall apart on the way. I forgot to switch off the “avoid unpaved roads” option in my GPS so we start with half an hour of scenic dirt roads in El Salvador. After that it’s another half an hour nicely paved road to the border. We stop at a gas station just before the border to fill up on cheap diesel and have something more to eat so we don’t get grumpy in the long queues. Driving towards the border it gets busier with trucks parked at the side of the road. When we get near the border, the standard Central American fun starts. Loads of helpers come running up to you. The helpers always say this specific border crossing will take forever but if you only give them a bit of money they’ll help you through all the red tape and queues in no time. Mostly they don’t help at all, don’t speak English and end up asking more and more money. So no need for these guys. I drive with my windows open (no AC) so they come hanging into my van. Mike and Lyndsay do have AC but with closed windows they just keep banging on your windows. My solution to this: don’t slow down, keep driving and try not to run them over. At the same time you don’t want to drive past the actual official guys because they don’t seem to appreciate that. Mostly the official guys are easily recognizable by their big guns and military outfits but sometimes they just look like another helper. We make it to the first stop: the Salvadorian Aduana. This is the place where we cancel our temporary import permit for the car. We try to find a safe spot (not in the middle of the road, but still within sight) to park. The moment you open your doors the helpers mob us again. But saying that you don’t need help and just ignoring them mostly makes them give up relatively quickly. We get to the tiny office *a window) where we hand in our temporary import permits. I get a dirty look because my permit had some slight water damage. The guy types some stuff into the computer, scribbles something on the paper and tells us to get some copies of our passports, driver’s license, vehicle registration and the temporary import with his scribbles. This is something that happens at every border crossing. The offices almost always have a copier but they make you go to a copy shop that charges you a few cents for the copies. There is a copy shop in a shack right next to the office and it’s pretty cheap so we decide to refill our copy stack. Turns out we misunderstood the guy and we first needed a police guy (camouflaged as a helper) to inspect our car and then get the copies. The cop is mad at us for ignoring him but he turns out to speak perfect English (nobody ever speaks English at the border crossings) and when we talk about the chaos and helpers he turns out to be really friendly. He wants to look inside the cars, but doesn’t care to look inside the cupboards. Then to the most important part of any car inspection: verification of the VIN number. One number/letter difference and you have a problem. For additional fun European cars have their VIN number in a different location that American cars so they can never find mine and I have to help them find it. The cop scribbles and stamps some more. He is friendly enough to do both the original and the copies so we don’t have to go copy again. Back to the Aduana office where the guy keeps some papers and gives us some back. That is part one of getting out of El Salvador…
We drive another kilometer which of course has to go through a market. I don’t know why but Central American countries love to have a crowded market on the streets to the border. After that we get to the Salvadorian Imigracion building where you get your passport checked. You can kind of drive through the building but you still need to get out to get your things organised. An official guy comes to my window and needs my passport. He asks to have a look in the car and how much cash I have. He asks me to take my cash and follow him. He disappears behind a steel door with an angry looking cop in front. I have to wait outside. Every time the door opens the cop reaches for his gun. I get called inside a tiny office with three border police people. One guy asks me where I’m from while the other inspects my bag. I have to empty my pockets and they check all the money and other things. Apparently I missed a few coins in my pocket and off course they fall out of my pocket with a lot of noise. The cops don’t like that and now I have to be patted down while facing the wall (while at the same time one of the cops is still counting my money behind me. My pockets now really are empty and they let me go. I check my bag and wallet: everything is still there. Next is a window in the same building that inspects your passport, asks where you came from and where you are going. They don’t stamp your passport but give you a tiny piece of paper. Now El Salvador is supposed to be cleared. We drive to the bridge which is the actual border where the guard wants the paper from the passport and a copy of the cancelled vehicle permit before he lets you go. One border check down three to go.
There is the Honduran border. On the bridge is an official looking guy (big gun, military outfit) that wants my passport, driver’s license and car registration. He tells me to follow him to a big building which looks like it might collapse soon. Again the fun to find parking. This time the main worry is to not get locked in by other cars. The guy walks us to the Aduana window where our documents disappear. The passport comes back and we are told to stand in the queue for Immigracion while they work on our import permit. That sounds like an efficient process. Sadly enough it is almost Christmas and there are loads of people heading home so the queue is enormous. Also it barely moves. Luckily the queue is inside, no AC but shade is good enough. The queue takes about an hour but when you’re at the front they’re actually pretty quick. You pay 3 USD and they take your finger prints to get a stamp in your passport and a tourist card. Back at the Aduana window the lady is almost done with our temporary import permits. This time they want three copies of: vehicle registration (front and back), driver’s license (front and back), passport (photo page, page with Honduran immigration stamp, page with Honduran vehicle import stamp she just put in there), tourist card and cancelled Salvadorian vehicle import permit. We find a copy shop for some more copies and return to the friendly lady. We need to pay a 40 USD fee for the import and she stamps and signs some more paperwork. They don’t bother to check the actual cars. Now we’re good to go. If only Mike and Lyndsay’s car wouldn’t be locked in… We get the other car to move and now we’re really done. There is a car fumigation stop with nobody there so we keep driving, another official wants to see all the papers we collected and keeps some of the copies. First border: 2.5 hours.
It’s only some 120 km from this border to the Nicaraguan border but the road is supposed to be bad and full of check points. We took quite a bit longer than expected to get here so we decide to drive halfway, look at the time and decide there. The road is actually pretty OKand we see no checkpoints so after lunch at the half way point we decide to head on. We probably won’t make it to our planned destination of Leon, Nicaragua today, but there are enough stops right past the border. Once we decide to ride on, the roads get terrible. A giant pothole extravaganza. Potholes more than a meter in diameter and more than 30 cm deep. I haven’t seen such shitty roads since I was in Michigan, USA. It’s a tiring drive of zigzagging and braking. Of course you can’t evade all of them so I get pretty frustrated. whenever I hit one. Luckily the police checkpoints seem to be having their lunch breaks and are unmanned. The few that do have people wave us through right away. One of the last checkpoints does have a bunch of cops stopping almost every car. But when I drive up they just all look at the other lane because of a weird car or something so I can sneak through. Mike and Lyndsay drive right behind me but do get stopped. Luckily it only takes a few minutes. I decide I need another quick break before getting to the border so I’m not all worked up from the dumb potholes. The 40 USD we paid made this the worst maintained and most expensive toll road of the trip.
Border number 2! We drive up and once again the helpers flock our cars. We keep ignoring them and they keep trying harder: “It’s very busy. It’s Christmas! You won’t make it through today! See you tomorrow when you get out!”. We ignore them and head inside. Well there goes another huge queue. Lyndsay and I queue up while Mike goes to figure out if this is our queue and if we have to do Imigracion or Aduana first. Well it’s the right queue and it moves very slowly. We notice the same people we saw heading into Honduras earlier today. The queue is behind glass in the hot sun and we’re all tired. We buy some spicy green mango to snack on. Lyndsay starts entertaining us by being annoying as hell, poking us and telling crappy stories. Exactly tmy way of entertainment. The queue barely moves but when you get to the front, you’re through in no time. Luckily our finger prints did not change in the last few hours. The Aduana windows are surrounded by the Imigracion queues but luckily we’re the only people there and after we give her a bunch of copies the lady does her stampy magic and we’re allowed to go. One more border to go.
We drive to the Nicaraguan border. We get stopped for fumigation. A guy in protecting outfit sprays the cars with some nasty chemicals to kill all the bugs or something. We are send to a small window that wants 3 USD for this nice service. Right next to the fumigation area are some ladies sitting on folding chairs yelling: “Seguro! Seguro!” They’re selling the compulsory car insurance of Nicaragua. Guatamala, El Salvador and Honduras do not have compulsory car insurance and it is pretty hard to get so I just drove around without it. Here you give your passport, driver’s license and car registration to one of the friendly ladies and they’ll fill in a form for you. They are all from different companies but they all cost the same (15 USD for a month) and have the same coverage (basically none). Also they don’t seem to care who you buy it from. We drive some more and find the Aduana/Imigracion building. The building is surrounded by trash and people are sleeping everywhere. Once inside we first get our passports done. It’s 10 USD tourist fee and 2 USD tax for another nice stamp, but for whatever reason we can only pay a part of the fee in Dollars, the equivalent of 4 USD has to be paid in Cordobas so we hunt down an ATM to get some local cash from. Then it’s off to the last counter of the day: the Aduana. The people are very friendly but we have a hard time understanding them. The long day did not help and neither does the fact that the people are behind a thick window with a hole to talk through at a height that’s even low for the locals. So crawling down into the counter I try to explain him how many cylinders and seats my car has. The paperwork is printed and I do the check. The paper lists me as being from the Netherlands Antilles instead of the Netherlands. I tell the guy but he says he doesn’t have a Netherlands option in his system and that it won’t be a problem. I’m to tired to care or argue. We get our cars inspected again this time by both a customs and a police guy. Loads of scribbles on the paper. After some 10 hours we are now in Nicaragua. With another half an hour of daylight left, we camp at a pay by the hour car/love hotel. They open up a room for us so we can use the shower and toilets and make sure there is a fresh supply of condoms. The room really does look like they hose it down with bleach every day. Anyway we can sleep in our cars so we don’t care. We walk across the street to a restaurant for dinner and beers to celebrate a successful day and decide to never ever do this again.