So before I begin I should explain that this describes our experiences at the borders, across Central America. There are lots of other over landers that will have had completely different experiences in exactly the same places and maybe at even the same times. I also know that there will be some that will have had tougher times. One thing that we have learned is that these places rarely have the consistency in process that as Europeans we take for granted. As with all experiences there are lessons to be learned. So, these are our experiences, warts and all..
USA to Mexico.
Expectation: Lines of Mexicans battling to gain entry to the land of the free (this was before the election result!) with Banditos happy to relieve us from our worldly possessions
Reality: Relaxed and straightforward with happy smiling border staff. (On the Mexican side that is!)
Riding South of San Diego on a large highway it is made very clear that you are on the road out of the USA. The border appears quicker than expected and before you know it you are rolling past the USA officials and onwards to the scary section. We parked up and looked around us. It was organised, it was clean and the armed guards smiled at us and directed us to immigration. 40 minutes later we are back on the highway riding South. We paid our $400 deposit for the bike- which would be returned to us as long as we left the country prior to our visas expiring.
Was it scary? Nope. Intimidating? Nope. Crazy to think that most Americans are frightened by the prospect of crossing this border.
Time taken: 40minutes
Mexico to Belize.
Expectation: Busy and unorganised
Reality: Friendly, English speaking and relaxed
Entering Belize from Chetumal in Mexico was straightforward indeed. No touts or agents bothered us nor were we put under any pressure. We had the bike checked on the Mexican side and after confirmation that I had not sold or swapped it along the way we were stamped out with our refund on the way. Rolling to Belize and we were met by a happy chap that told us where to park and what to do. We paid a small fee and had the bike visa stamped into my passport! A first on the trip. We ‘accidentally’ skipped the fumigation of the bike and were waved through by the border officials. It all had a Caribbean feel to it. We purchased compulsory insurance just over the border and on we rode on. Easy peasy..
Time taken: 45minutes
Belize to Guatemala.
Expectation: Touts and ‘agents’ bothering us and a lengthy process. We were up early and ready for the long haul.
Reality: Slightly more intense than our experiences to date but painless and swift when compared to our expectations.
Leaving Belize was as relaxing as entering. We were wished a safe onward journey and left feeling relaxed. Crossing into Guatemala and there was an obvious change in the atmosphere and the location certainly resembled my perception of a Central American border crossing. We paid $3.00 to have the bike fumigated (A pointless but cash generating exercise!). Then with Lorna standing guard of our possessions and of course the bike, I wandered towards the official looking open air immigration area. We were stamped into the country and paid a fee of Q20 each to enter. I changed some dollars for Quetzals from a scary looking lorry driver. (He was actually very nice and the rate was pretty good). I paid our entry fee with my new cash and then joined the line to sort out the bike paperwork. No English was spoken but a smile and a mutual enjoyment for the football that was on the TV behind the desk and I was all set. Back over the cashier and we paid for the bike’s permit. Back to the original chap and we were given a sticker for the windshield and a receipt.
Our guard was up more here than our previous border crossings but on reflection it was a positive experience and one that we should not have had any concern over. I returned to the bike with the necessary paperwork to find Lorna with a new friend. A 10 year old boy had been keeping her company and then demanded I pay him for the privilege. I told him he should be in school and not hanging around in such a place.
Time: 1hour 10minutes
Guatemala to El Salvador.
Expectation: Entering one of the world’s most dangerous countries. I will leave it at that!
Reality: Surprisingly friendly and straightforward. A pleasant experience.
The Detail: Checking out of Guatemala was simple enough. A couple of photocopies were needed of our permit and we were directed to the copy shop. (Someone’s front room actually).
Back to immigration and a visual check of the bike. Permit cancelled and time to ride towards the tricky bit. El Salvador. Arriving at immigration and we were the only 4 people there. We had travelled with Karen and Dieter (fellow bikers). A check of our papers and then a 45minute wait and we were granted entry with our latest permit. No fee was charged and it was all done with a smile. Not worth worrying about at all!
Time: 2 hours.
El Salvador to Honduras.
Expectation: Likely to be the toughest to date. Known for corruption and touts happy to take away your cash in return for ‘help’.
Reality: Unfortunately as expected.
2 years ago when we were planning the trip we had read about Honduras and its notorious border crossings. So it was well and truly framed in my mind as one to be prepared for. We left El Cuco in El Salvador at sunrise and arrived at the exit point under an hour later. Over 300 trucks were aleady patiently in line and they were happy to wave us past .. Great i thought. Arriving at customs we were immediately sent back the way we had came to have our motorbike permit cancelled in the booth 1km away. (blocked by a lorry as we past the first time).
Parked up and about to remove my helmet and I was pounced on by an official looking border agent. (he had id hanging around his neck). Before i knew it I was resembling a nodding dog as I followed him to the copy booth and then to the permit station. Permit cancelled I went to get back on the bike and re-join Lorna. However, I was premature, I had to go back to the copy shop to copy the now cancelled permit.
So by this stage I had copies of:
- 3 x vehicle title
- 3 x passport
- 3 x cancelled permit
- 3 x driving licence
I thanked my agent and paid him 5 dollars as remuneration for his efforts. But he insisted on joining us through to assist in getting us into Honduras. Ok I thought, let’s roll with it. Onto El Salvador immigration where I am summoned into a room and the door is closed behind me. My agent is chatting to a fat and pompous looking official in uniform who is eying me up and down like he wants to have a fight. He orders me to remove my jacket and he frisks me.
Meanwhile he has his junior searching the motor bike and Lorna too. As he went through my pockets of my now removed jacket I was felt concerned about Lorna and what experience she may be going through with the other guy. Still smiling I try to remain calm. The pompous one finds my antibiotics for a cut on my arm and starts to shout at me. Then he finds my wallet and opens it. He helps himself to 20dollars and laughs. Then opens the door and I am free to go..
Feeling violated and ever so slightly full of rage we rolled into no mans land and began the process to enter Honduras. 3hrs later and another 60dollars in unnecessary fees instructed by my agent and we were stamped into a country that we planned to ride across less time!
On reflection this experience was in some way what I had expected but equally not the norm. We know of several people that have crossed with less hassle but we have also met several that had worse stories. It feels un-necessary to have such corruption and intimidation at these places, especially when we know what other borders can be like. Some will say ‘it was just $20.00, get over it’ and we have. It could have been a lot worse!
Time taken: 3.5hours
Honduras to Nicaragua
Expectation: After our previous experience I was a little nervous
Reality: We were far more controlled and aware of the situation. Happy that it went smoothly.
We were noticed more than a mile out by two opportunists that wanted to assist us leaving Honduras. Still reeling from before I kept my guard even higher and felt slightly more in control of the situation but they were persistent to say the very least, insisting that they bump us up the line and pay off the police etc. We resisted and coped on our own and within 30minutes we were clear to cross towards Nicaragua side. We were fumigated yet again ($3.00) and then I was befriended by a 9yr old boy that insisted on helping us through the immigration process. He was pretty useless but i like him nonetheless and allowed him to follow me around as I circled the immigration offices looking for the insurance forms. Once found I took my insurance and permit to another official looking guy who signed it for me. Then it was back to a queue to get the stamped permit so that we could continue. It was hot and humid which made the wait uncomfortable but is was a friendly enough place. Filthy but friendly! I gave the boy a dollar and told him to buy some fruit with it. (I am sure that he did!)
Time taken: 2.5 hours
Nicaragua to Costa Rica
Expectation: Pointless copies of documents and frustratingly slow but with the hope that Costa Rica side would be easy
Reality: Lots of copies of documents and a tad frustrating but painless. Costa Rican side was very friendly.
By the time we left for Costa Rica we were feeling well versed in the processes required at each border and were relaxed by the prospect of our seventh crossing in 5 weeks. The Nicaraguan side required us to cancel our permit. This involved more copies of documents and then a 15 minute hunt for an elusive policeman to sign the now cancelled permit. I ignored his request for $1.00 for his prized signature and went inside to finally get it cancelled. Into Costa Rica and the touts disappeared and the atmosphere felt more relaxed. Permit filled in, insurance purchased and we were set. Just one more border to go!
Time taken: 2 hours
Costa Rica to Panama
Expectation: Nice and simple
Reality: Frustratingly slow for no apparent reason!
Entry into Panama was a frustrating experience with the process taking 3 hrs when it was clear it could have been 20minutes. But when in Rome and all that.. So we smiled and we watched the passport lady curl her hair behind the glass and tell us to return at 3 pm. I smiled at the bike inspector who didn’t want to inspect our bike and also didn’’t want to sign for it.. And i smiled at the customs guys that demanded I empty the contents of our luggage. Once the permit is in my hand my frustrations disappear and we are enjoying the 4 lane highway to Panama City.
The process out of Costa Rica had taken 10 minutes and was painless. My optimism soon disappeared when we rolled towards the Panama immigration. It had beed the day before Independence Day and I am sure that this was a contributing factor in the lacklustre attitude of all of the staff at the border.
Time Taken: 3 hours (Could have been 1.5 hours!)
Eight border crossings in six weeks was always going to feel full on, and it did. However, on the whole they went very well for us. Neither of us speak Spanish and relied heavily on our smiles and common sense. Our experience crossing into Honduras was a low point for us both but it could have been worse. If I could speak enough Spanish then I may have been able to argue myself out of the room rather than pay for it. The tout ripped us off for sure but he did help us get through and maybe saved us from further exploitation- we will never know.
Sat writing this and reflecting on the experience I feel proud that we have crossed the madness of Central America and unaided. I would recommend it to any one and would advise to you take the horror stories with a pinch of salt.
I would also like to thank the authors ‘Don’t Go There, You’ll Die’ A fantastic guide to border crossings in Central America.