Three Countries, Two Border Crossings, 11 Hours and Two Bribes in One Day

Borders #4 and #5

San Miguel, El Salvador through Honduras to Las Peñitas, Nicaragua

OH THE DREAD. Which we know is a terrible way to start a day like this… Last time we failed to read the guides provided by other lovely travelers such as Life Remotely, My Overland Adventure, and Along Dusty Roads we ended up bombarded by scam artists and were really overwhelmed. HOWEVER, reading these guides can also create even more stress, in anticipation of a long and difficult day (so be warned).

While ours was better than expected, I have to admit that it was DEFINITELY a long and difficult day.

BUT we were prepared; we had a PLAN.

1. Ignore the touts at all costs (no matter how “rude” we need to be)
2. Save a handful of Spanish phrases to our Google Translate App for quick reference (this one is for Meg)
3. Follow the Life Remotely Guides & My Overland Adventure LINE-BY-LINE (thank you thank you thank you!!)
4. Anytime we have no idea what’s next and we start to LOOK confused, we become targets for scams. Just get back in the car and try to pretend the guys standing outside your windows simply aren’t there!

El Salvador to Honduras: El Amatillo

Leaving El Salvador

More than a mile before the border, touts began to swarm the car. They followed us (running) to our parking spot off to the right of the little white shack. Exiting the car, all it took was a loud, “No! Yo no necesidad tu ayuda, pero gracias.” and then just sort of push past them and walk very quickly toward your destination (it’s crazy what a few stern Spanish phrases and walking with confidence can do).

1.     Cancel your Temporary Vehicle Permit (TIP). You’ll need to make copies of this either now, or at the immigration building.

2.     Drive on, staying LEFT at the fork in the road (we were on this road longer than we expected before coming to the immigration building).

Approaching the building, we were stopped by an officer. He asked to see our passports and took a while before speaking to us or giving them back. We finally asked “Todo bien?” and got a pretty nasty glare. No response… He continued to look around, waited a little longer just to make things uncomfortable, and then handed back our passports and waved his hand (allowing us to pass) without saying a word. I guess we should get used to this.

3.     Park on the right, walk to the window at the end of the building, present your passports (they will not be stamped) and collect a receipt.

4.     We made 3 copies of the cancelled TIP & immigration receipt at a little store right across from the immigration building to the left of the fumigation exit.

5.     Drive over the bridge, a guard will inspect your paperwork and take the receipt.

Entering Honduras

Get ready for COPIES, COPIES, and more COPIES. Just as we’d been warned… these are NEVER ENDING in Honduras. Relax… it’s border-crossing day ;) You will sweat, you will stand in at least 1 line, you will retrace your steps MANY times, you will NOT complete either one in under 45 minutes, so you might as well find something to laugh or talk about.

1.     Park wherever you can (we were off to the right)

2.     Enter the gated building/breezeway and stop at the first window on your RIGHT (cost of tourist entry is $3)

3.     Go to the copy shop (we found one just before the customs building, to the left)

You need three copies of the following: driver’s tourist card & receipt, driver’s passport (photo page & page with Honduran stamp), vehicle title, vehicle registration, and driver’s license.

4.     Head back to the customs building but this time go a few windows down to the LEFT.

5.     IF you have everything, you will be asked to fill out a form and pay a fee at the bank.

We were getting lucky… Only one young tout stood next to us at our window for the majority of our crossing but he wasn't all that aggressive and we cut him off or blocked his view of the window anytime he tried to speak for us.

Other than that he just offered us a pen to fill out of forms (we have one of our own, thanks) and he stayed quiet.

We definitely witnessed a few other families being hassled a bit, so we waved them in the right direction when we could but overall, we got off pretty easy.

6.     We found a bank THROUGH this building’s breezeway and out the other side, on the right side of the street, past all of the bicycle taxis and moneychangers.

7.     Pay the fee (it was about $40 – the bank didn't accept USD).

We had to go back outside, change money, and return to the bank

8.     They will give you a receipt at the bank. You’ll need 3 copies!

There was a copy machine IN the bank (and we really doubted they’d let us use it…) But what do you know!? The woman must have been in a good mood because she made us 3 and then smiled after we thanked her (now THAT’s what you call a border crossing WIN)

9.     BACK to the customs building to show them you paid the fee and collect your Honduran import permit

10.  Make 4 copies, go BACK to the customs window and give them 2.

11. Here, we’re pretty sure someone was supposed to come inspect our car. But the woman must have been tired of seeing us because she just told us we were finished.

12. Hmm, okay. We went back to the copy shop on our way out to made more copies… just for the heck of it.

13. We drove into Honduras and showed our stack of papers to the guard. He kept what he needed and we kept the rest.

14. We weren’t stopped at the fumigation station.

80 miles to relax (assuming we don’t hit any police checkpoints) and then we get to do that ALLLLLLL again. We’d heard there could be MULTIPLE checkpoints in this country.

Thank our lucky stars, we only saw five during our entire drive through Honduras. Three were northbound and the two southbound stations just waved us through.

Honduras to Nicaragua: Guasaule

Leaving Honduras

This was by far our busiest border to date (lines out the door) but we made border friends with a fellow American overlander that we recognized from the previous border, so that helped.

1.  Avoid the scammer chasing down your car as you head toward the large building on the left hand side. You can park on whichever side of the building you’d like to, so just ignore the touts waving you down and pointing you in various directions.

Immigration (Part 1) is on the left/back side of the building and Aduana/Customs (Part 2) is on the right/front side.

We parked on the right side of the building and just walked through to the immigration lines. They’re all in the same building.

2. Receive your exit stamp from Immigration and walk to the other side of the counter

This side of the counter was closed so we waited with our friends we met from Oregon until 1pm (15 minutes)

3.  Hand over your Vehicle Import Permit from the last border and receive a car exit stamp in your passport (this serves as the receipt).

4. Show the exit guard your paperwork and cross the bridge to Nicaragua (unless you accidentally miss the guard like we did, bringing us to scam #1).

SCAM #1

Leaving the building was a little confusing but we were now with the couple we’d met at customs. We went around the back and wedged ourselves in between two 18-wheelers waiting in a LONG truck line (accidentally passing the exit guard who checks the paperwork). Now… MOST cars and SUVs skip the truck line but they DON’T skip the guard (this made him very angry). He scolded us and asked for our drivers license and paper work. We apologized A LOT but he’d already made up his mind that a bribe was our only way out. He asked us for $800 USD.

Yeah right, man.

We obviously said no, and started to discuss alternate solutions (we were HAPPY to go back and wait in line, but he made it clear that wasn’t an option). Then his English suddenly became terrible, and no matter how much Spanish we spoke, he was COMPLETELY unable to understand us. Convenient for him I guess.

And then just like our last bribe situation, up walks a guy in plain clothes (again as if on cue) speaking PERFECT English. “We didn’t mean to skip the line,” we say, “and we’re happy to go back because we don’t have – nor would we ever pay – $800 for the mistake we just made”. Our new helpful friend says “No problem, no problem… hmm… just give him something guys. Anything will make him happy, I can talk him down, what do you have on you?” GOOD GRIEF. Tyler pulls out his wallet and all he has is a $20 bill (unfortunately for us, nothing smaller). But at least we’d learned our lesson from the last bribe to hide ALL of our money somewhere else in the car and ONLY keep a few bills in our wallets).

$20 it is, and we’re really not happy with that. But whatever, we need our ID back, and I’m SOOO ready to be on a beach in Nicaragua.

We wait a few more minutes in the truck line after the now pacified officer and his friend leave. And we wait. And wait. Okay this is ridiculous… let’s go. We discuss this with our Oregon friends and all agree to floor it past all of the trucks on the one-lane bridge. Sure enough, we pull right behind the empty car/SUV fumigation lane on the Nicaraguan side. We weren't crazy after all...

Entering Nicaragua

Show your paperwork to the guards standing near the fumigation lane for the cars, they will give you a customs declaration form and send you through fumigation.

1.     Have your car fumigated, park, walk over to the little yellow building, pay $3 and get your receipt. You’ll need it later.

2.     Get back in your car and drive over to immigration, park just outside.

3.     We were directed to a little portable building out front (still not sure why) but we each answered 1 question about our trip and were handed a TINY slip of white paper that we later gave to immigration (MAYBE this was the medical declaration we’d heard about from My Overland Adventure??).

A lady out front helped us fill out our customs declaration form (she wasn’t a scam artist and was wearing an immigration polo but still, FILL OUT YOUR OWN FORM… you’ll know why in a little bit).

4.     Wait in line at immigration (on the left, inside of the building) and get your stamps

5.     We had to walk around to a different window to pay the tourist fees ($12 pp)

6.     Head to Aduana to obtain your Temporary Vehicle Permit

Remember when we said that nice woman filled out our declaration form for us? When she asked what was on top of our car we said a tent. She didn’t understand, we said “you know, for camping” so she wrote “Camping”

Apparently this word is not comparable to anything in their automated computer system because the girls at the Aduana counter were VERY confused by it. They asked where we were parked (right outside we said, in this parking lot for regular vehicles), but they kept directing us to the 18-wheeler customs building. No, we told them. We promise we’re not in a cargo truck, we have NO cargo to declare, nothing but personal items in a small 4Runner/mid-sized SUV. Come look! So finally they did, and they seemed satisfied with the car. HOWEVER, our customs paper still said “Camping” and apparently that just would not do.

Pretty please, give us another form. We’ll remove the word camping and this won’t be an issue. No no no. You still need to go to the truck building. FINE. Over in the other building, the officials in this building tell us to go back to the regular aduana. We’ve already done that.

30 minutes, 5 officials, 3 trips to and from the adjoining buildings and multiple iPhone photos of our expanded rooftop tent later, and the original young girl reviewing our paperwork finds SOME way to satisfy the computer system and enter our paperwork.

She says we are good to go (we’re TOTALLY unconvinced and almost sure we’ll be stopped at the border, but whatever) she says we’re good so let’s go.

7.     We stop at the insurance tables just outside the immigration/customs building, fill out the form, pay the $12, and collect proof (because insurance is required).

8.     Upon exit, we show all of our paperwork you to the guards, along with our customs declaration form (fingers crossed) and they wave us on. YES!! 

I’m not sure if it’s because our El Salvador crossing was so stressful or if it was the solace we found in realizing all the other travelers looked even MORE miserable and impatient than we did… but despite this being probably the longest, most complicated border day EVER we were somehow still enjoying ourselves (as much as one can while standing in the heat, dripping sweat, and doing paperwork all day). Sandy beach, here we come!

(oh you thought we were done didn't you?)

SCAM #2

The drive from Guasaule to León, Nicaragua is only about half an hour. Then from there, it’s a quick 30-40 minutes to the tiny little beach town of Las Peñitas (or so we thought).

Right after we make it through León and turn onto the road that will lead us to the beach, two officers sharing a motorcycle, wave us down using their orange traffic lights. They’re not military, no guns, but definitely real police officers.

They ask for Tyler’s license, where we’re coming from and where we’re going. Pretty standard. We answer, but they don’t reply… ok? I’m sorry officer but what exactly is the problem? Um… they start looking around and finally point to the license plate on our dashboard. Oh sorry, would you like us to screw on the tags? Sure, we’ll do that right now. No… they stop us. “Too fast, you go too fast.” (We'd been driving 30mph… and JUST as he says this, a car speeds past us all). Meg points at the car, what about them?! The officer on Meg’s side of the car smiles… no chica. This isn’t about them.

So Tyler says to the officer on his side of the car, just write us a ticket. And now HIS officer is smiling and shaking his head. Nope, not happening. So now it’s a stand off.

FINALLY the officer gives us a figure: 1200 Cordoba (roughly $42). We have this money in the console, but no way. We already lost $20 to a Honduran officer’s bribe. We are DONE spending money today. Then again, he has Tyler’s license and we don’t want a scene…

So Meg pulls out her wallet and starts showing her officer ALL of the many bills she has in her wallet (pesos, quetzals, lempiras and $1 USD). Here… you want this? Tyler’s officer has gotten a little uncomfortable at this point and is waiting by their motorcycle. Meg’s officer looks down at her large stack of bills, looks back at his buddy on the bike, and says “Nada” (they have nothing). But Meg’s officer is determined; he’s not going anywhere.

Tyler shows the officer his credit card and offers to follow the police officers back to the station and pay the ticket on the spot. At this point, we would happily pay a ticket if they could actually write one. Obviously, that's not their end goal, but we tried to appear willing to comply with their "authority." Not getting anywhere, Tyler says fine, I’ve got a debit card, let’s go back to an ATM (we'd LIKE to go back to the station but all four of us know this is a bogus ticket situation). We have no idea where the station is, and they definitely aren’t going to tell us. To our surprise, they say ok to the ATM. The sun is setting now and Las Peñitas is still 30 mins away (but we’re trying to pretend we don’t mind… we have ALL the time in the world).

Like we said, we had enough cash in center console, but we didn't want to give away our bluff and we didn't think they would want to go through the trouble. But off we went...

15 minutes back into town and they show us the ATM. It’s very confusing, because they won’t really point it out… and even after we see it and pull over, they keep driving. But Tyler gets the money (makes EXACT change and hands the rest to Meg to hide). If we’re ACTUALLY going to pay these dudes after this whole mess, they are not getting a CENT more than what they asked for. Tyler walks down the street but they tell him to walk back to the car. What is going on??

Back at the street corner, Tyler walks up to Meg’s officer (the other one is gone now) and tries to hand him the 1200 Cordoba. The officer hands Tyler his license, waves his hand at the cash and doesn't take the money. Bizarre, but great! Tyler doesn't say another word an walks back to the car with his money and his license.

He tells Meg what happened… Haha what? This is the craziest thing we’ve ever experienced. Good riddance León, let’s get the HECK out of here.

Driving back through the city toward our beach road, THEY WAVE US DOWN AGAIN. This is not a joke. Meg rolls down her window, her officer is trying to say something but she doesn't understand. She types what he’s saying into Google Translate on her iPhone (yes, this is all really happening). The officer is helping her spell-check until she gets the right words entered into the phone (Google translates the words “I cannot accept the money”). WHAT? You pulled us over AGAIN to TELL US YOU CAN’T ACCEPT THE MONEY?

Okay dude, I cannot BELIEVE this is happening right now. We roll up the window and drive off. Say hello to the two nicest gringos in the world. Next time, we’re going to just keep driving. I don't care if they are police officers, we’ll just say, “Oh, were you waving at US???”

Ladies and Gentleman, welcome to the most ridiculous day in the world. If you ever find yourself making the same journey, the odds of you having this many issues is slim to none. So that’s a plus.

Despite all the above, we were in surprisingly good spirits. How can you NOT find humor in the day we just had? The LARGE cold liter of Toña in Las Peñitas definitely helped our situation, as did the sand under our feet and the A/C unit in our private hostel room.

We’ll be stationary for the next week and we think we deserve it. Best of luck on your journey and we’ll see you down the road.

Meg + Tyler

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