Two words. One English, one Spanish. Both pronounced the same. I’m pretty sure that they are related. In this episode we attempt to enter Honduras (at El Amatillo) and Nicaragua (at El Espino) in the same day.
The word “copious” in English means, “Large in quantity or number; abundant; plentiful.” I have to believe that it is borrowed from the Spanish word for photocopies, “copias.” The amount of copies of documents required to cross a Central American border can only be described as copious.
De-forestation is already a major issue in these countries. Somebody buy them a scanner!
Tuesday, February 6th
I’m rarely still sleeping at 6am on a border crossing day. This day was no exception. By this time I was already halfway through the $1.50 breakfast that my host, Barbara, at the Europa Guesthouse Hostel had fixed for me. I had done an ample amount of planning for this dual crossing in the preceding two days, but I still knew the day would hold many surprises.
Of all the countries on my path (18 or so?) Honduras was the one I was most worried about. Thankfully, I had a consultant to help me out, my friend Monica. Experienced readers of this quality publication may recognize her as the leftmost participant of my official photo representing Minnesota (place 10 of 92):
(Annie almost looks strange without all of signatures.)
Her Mother is Honduran and they still keep a close eye on the goings on in the country. Having her help was a huge bonus.
Given the unrest in this country, which increased after the election in late January, I decided to essentially skip over it. The country is skinny enough towards the southern end, that this is not too difficult. I should maybe mention that totally skipping passed Honduras is possible via ferry, but it was $45 for a person and about $250 for a motorcycle.
My first decision of the day was to remove the sign from Annie’s behind. I wanted there to be as few things as possible drawing attention to myself.
I stopped for gas fairly close to the border so that I would have enough fuel to pass through Honduras without stopping. By around 7:30, I had reached the border area of El Amatillo.
The first thing I noticed was an incredibly long line of parked semi trucks. It probably stretched for close to a mile preceding the border.
My information had indicated that this was typical. I rode slowly and kept peeking between each parked truck, not wanting to miss the little booth which I knew would be my first stop.
I pulled up and a couple of helpers offered their services, but not in a pushy way. They seem to be much more official at this crossing. Even though I was very clear that I was not going to pay them anything, they still helped point me in the right direction a couple of times.
A guy standing in the middle of the road was my first stop. He scribbled some stuff on my import paper and told me to go make some copies. I returned to the little hut and basked in the meager amount of cool air seeping from the small window.
At least I wasn’t one of these guys:
As I waited, I joked around with some of the helpers and other people there. Small talk is such an important part of learning a language. I told them that I planned to return to El Salvador soon so that I could find a wife to make me pupusas anytime. After everything was cancelled out, I needed to make a few more copies, then see the guard in the middle of the road. It was pretty painless to get Annie out of El Salvador.
Now I just needed to export myself. I continued to the migration building and exchanged $10 for some Lempiras (Honduran currency) at a pretty fair rate. At this stop, I met a couple from Quebec, Jules and Yolaine who are travelling south in a camioneta (I use the Spanish word, since “mini-van” still has a stigma attached to it). We would meet up many more times over the course of the day.
After one more checkpoint on the bridge, we officially entered Honduras.
Both the migration and customs are in the same building. It was a fairly smooth process. One of the helpers basically attached himself to me, though I told him from the outset that I was not going to pay him anything. He was not obnoxious in any way, but I think he was waiting for me to need help.
Honduras was the first country to take all of my finger prints as well as my picture. I asked the guy behind the window if I could smile for the picture and he seemed at least mildly amused. I think the fee was around $3 here, paid in Lempiras.
On the north side of the hallway were the windows for customs. There was no one else waiting when I arrived, so the clerk got right to work hand writing all of my papers. The import fee for Honduras is a bit ridiculous ($35, paid in dollars), especially considering I would be in the country for less than three hours.
After the clerk had used what must have been nearly a whole pen’s worth of ink, he sent me to make some copies. The first booth I went to said that their machine wasn’t working. They directed me up the street a ways to a blue building. I found a copier, but no one around to operate it.
A drunk gentleman offered his services and walked me a bit further down to a house where a little old lady was watching TV in a rocking chair. I was unsure of what exactly I needed copies, so I just copied any document that was new. I gave the drunk guy a quarter from my pocket.
I had a great chat with the lady as she slowly, but meticulously made copies. We talked about my trip, Jesus stuff and the Spanish word for stapler (la grapadora). When it was time for me to go, she put her hand on my forehead and said some words in a hushed tone which I did not catch. She may have just been advising me to wear more sunscreen, but I think she was praying a blessing over me. Either way, it was appreciated. 🙂
I went back to the building with hopefully more copies than I needed. The same gentleman behind the window hand wrote a few more things then sent me on my way. I think this whole border crossing was just around 90 minutes. It was not especially unpleasant.
There was one final check point a mile or so down the road.
These guys were a lot of fun. One of them had lived in Mississippi so I joked that he was my long lost brother. They told me the way I was going was fairly safe and that I shouldn’t have any problems. Overall, my first impressions of Honduras were quite positive
I stuck to the plan and just blasted right through the country. Along this route, I saw very few signs of unrest or dysfunction. There were lots of places where the road was under construction, but actual construction was happening. Most places in Central America just put up some construction signs, close some lanes, but don’t seem to fix anything.
I felt comfortable enough that I almost stopped for a bite to eat. I decided to only take one quick stop for some pictures of the landscape.
Pretty much the whole route had these “rolling mountains” on the horizon.
When I first got to Central America, I thought videos of cows on the road were pretty cool. Now I’m not sure that I even need to turn my camera on. 🙂 You could tell these guys were really good drivers though.
As I neared the border, I knew I was looking for a little booth. I was expecting it on my right and ended up riding right passed it. Helpful pointing from bystanders got me turned around.
The time was 11:45am. The gentleman in the booth looked at his watch and informed me that the migration building (you can see it in the video above) would be closing at noon for lunch. He didn’t say it in a perturbed way at all. It was more like, “We need to help you quickly.”
I don’t remember what exactly I did at this both, something for customs. Soon he sent me down to the other building. I started by getting my passport stamped at a little window on the outside of the building.
I went inside and was the only person in the large room. The guy behind the counter was really welcoming and also worked to expedite the process as well as he could. He said I needed….let’s say it all together now: Copias. He seemed prepared to do them for me, taking my documents into the back room, but upon emerging said that their machine was down. He directed me up the hill, back towards my original booth.
I reached the copy shop and a few guys yelled for the young operator who was down the street. He pulled the starting cord on a gas generator outside, bringing his copier to life.
He was able to fit both of my documents on the same page, saving me a few Lempiras. I made sure to give him some extra.
I returned down the hill to my friend in the migration office. He got me squared away quickly and sent me back up the hill once more to the little booth for one last stamp of approval.
I returned to Annie and changed out the last of my Lempiras. The money changer along with some of the staff who had helped me chatted with me about my trip. Honduras might be known as the least stable country in the region, but their border staff were the best ones I have encountered on my trip so far. Each one was friendly, efficient and professional.
Now for Nicaragua.
A little back story: Two days earlier I had read on a post in the Pan-American travelers facebook group, that Nicaragua was requiring a special permission for tourists to enter via email. Some people reported that they had not been asked for it, others reported that it had caused a delay of six hours at the border.
I had begun the process as soon as I had read about it. The form is a poorly formatted Word document. I had to delete portions of the underlining to fit in my answers. Very professional!
I returned the form via email and received a fairly prompt response, asking me to list every place I would be staying (with address, phone and reservation number) as well as all of the details of my motorcycle. I completed all of this as accurately as I could and sent it back in. When I arrived at the Nicaraguan border, I still had not heard back. I hoped that proof of my attempt would suffice.
A lady stopped me right at the border and wanted to see some amalgamation of paperwork. I wasn’t expecting the stop and I stumbled over my Spanish a bit. Before sending me off, she radioed ahead that there was a guy on a motorcycle coming who “habla muy poco Espanol.” (speaks very little Spanish). I think it was the emphasis on “muy” that offended me a bit. I wanted to tell her that I speak enough to understand that remark, but decided to just carry on. Note to Nicaragua: She’s probably not the first person you want visitors to your country to meet.
I stopped at the fumigation booth, paid my $3 and had a nice chat with the fumigator, Pedro. He spent about 30 seconds sprinkling Annie’s tires and about 5 minutes chatting about my trip. He was a cool guy.
I rode down the hill to the building that looks like the 60s version of futuristic. This building would be my home for the forseeable future.
A couple of armed guards were not happy that I took this picture. I just apologized and didn’t ask why. My Quebecois friends, Jules and Yolaine caught up to me here. The van by Annie is theirs.
I strode up to the window, hoping that the gentleman would not ask about the permission email. This was one of his first requests. I told him that there was “muy poco informacion” (I can emphasize “muy” too!) available about this sheet online. I told him that I had turned it in, responded to an inquiry for more information but was still waiting for confirmation. He seemed satisfied by this answer and didn’t ask about it again.
He did want to know an exact itinerary of my time in Nicaragua. I had made sure to reserve a hostel for the evening, so the border staff would have something they could verify. I opened the app and handed my phone to him. He poked around, squinted at the strange English words, checked his facebook, then handed the phone back to me. (OK, that third item might not be true.)
He told me to take a seat and wait, generously giving me a double sided form to help me occupy my time.
Jules and Yolaine got to this same step and were also told to wait. I think we probably spent a full hour without making any progress. I should maybe also note that there were hardly any other people coming through. There were definitely more staff than travelers at most times.
But no worries! The time passed easily since I had a Jules and Yolaine to chat with. It’s always fun to speak with travelers who have taken a similar route. Some observations are the same, some different. It was so nice to have them there.
We were all called back up to the windows at the same time. Jules and Yolaine had to have their picture taken, but I did not. Granted, they are much more photogenic than I am. The lady completing my paperwork did ask if I was single, but I think it was all part of the form. 🙂
The fee for entrance is $12. Funny enough, they only accept US dollars not Cordobas (the currency of Nicaragua). Jules and Yolaine were caught a little off guard by this fact, so they had to borrow a few dollars from me. They paid me back in Cordobas. I thought about attempting the same calculator trick that was used on me in Guatemala, but I gave them a fair price. I can now list “Central American Border Money Changer” on my resume!
Ourselves were in. Now for the vehicles.
Nicaragua requires owners of vehicles to purchase insurance (though customs never checked it). There are a few guys roaming around who offer this service. It is $12, payable in either USD or Codobas. I paid with a US $20 and was offered a paltry sum of Cordobas in return. I’m not sure if the guy was trying to rip me off, but he acted like it was an honest mistake. After some more calculator punching, I asked for my $20 back and just paid the fee in Cordobas. Sheesh.
I went to the customs window, feeling like I finally had all the pieces in place.
I’d skipped the inspection step. I was directed to find a guy in a vest who needed to look over my vehicle. I found him and he began to inspect Annie. The two guys with guns who had taken exception to my photo came over to see what I had. I was asked to open every case and explain what everything was. They didn’t inspect the frunk, of course.
The inspector could not seem to write my correct license plate on the form, leaving a trail of chicken scratches all over my nice document. (You can’t change an “F” to a “Y”, no matter how much you scribble.) I didn’t want to offend him, but I had to correct him for my own sake.
Customs window, take 2. The paperwork took awhile, but I finally had permission to enter Nicaragua. I think this process (just the Nicaraguan part), was over two and a half hours. Whereas the Honduran staff (at both entry and exit) felt like they were on my team, the staff in Nicaragua felt like they were doing anything to elongate the process.
But we would not be stopped!
Wow…this turned into a long one. I better stop there. I wonder how much time I devoted to these borders, not just on the day but the pre-planning as well. There are so many beautiful, amazing things to do and see in Central America. I wish I didn’t have to spend so much time figuring out how to cross imaginary lines.
Sorry for the copious amount of words. 🙂
Stay muy patient, everybody.
Realtime update: Let’s see if Nicaragua let’s me leave tomorrow! I’ll be attempting to enter Costa Rica. I’m feeling a little overwhelmed at the moment. Having to plan for borders and figure out my transport between Panama and Colombia is occupying so much time. I feel like I’m moving a little too fast, but I know my weather window for reaching the tip of South America is closing. Trying to balance everything is sapping my enjoyment a bit right now. Perhaps writing 3,000 words about a single day is not the best use of my time. 🙂