3 borders and 3 hours in Honduras

I crossed one border 5 days ago and 2 borders yesterday. Yesterday morning I left San Salvador, El Salvador, rode through Honduras, and then arrived in Leon, Nicaragua just before dark. The 3 hours in Honduras was hellish. I have no desire to return to Honduras at any point in the foreseeable future.

Guatemala to El Salvador

El Salvador seemed like an expensive country. With some considerable effort, I was living very cheaply in Guatemala. I was trying to recover from a spending binge over xmas and new year. When I hit El Salvador the prices seemed a notch higher than I had been paying in Guatemala. However, I did get by on just about $20 USD a day. The currency in El Salvador is the US Dollar, which made it easier to get a handle on what I was spending.

Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua are part of The Central American Four (CA4). I had heard they share some paperwork for visas, vehicle imports, and so on. I saw no evidence of that in my border crossings. Every crossing was just like entering a completely new country. I checked out of one and into the next. I believe it’s different for residents of one of the CA4 countries, but for me it seemed like 4 totally separate countries. In fairness, that might only apply to the bike, the process of importing myself did seem fairly easy between the 4 countries.

We crossed the border on CA2, the highway closest to the Pacific coast. I’m not sure what the towns are called on either side. This was 5 days and 3 border crossings back, so my memory is a little fuzzy. I’ll try to remember the details as accurately as I can.

The road split around a building. An armed uniformed fella stopped us and told us to park our bikes. A kid started telling us what we needed to take where. I ignored him and went about handling my own paperwork. We had to go around the building to two separate windows. One was related to the bike and the other to me. The first window was for the bike. I think I needed 1 copy each of my passport, driving license, and vehicle title. I also needed a copy of something else which I had to go and get on the spot. I handed all of that over and was given something back. I don’t think I spent any money at this point.

Next I went to the migracion window. I handed over my passport, I think it was stamped, and I got it back. Again, I didn’t pay anything here. However, Tomas had paid $2 and thought it might have been for both of us. Whether it was the disarming charm of my smile underneath the moustache or Tomas’s $2, we will never know!

I think this part must have been the exit from Guatemala. Next we crossed quite a long bridge, and came upon another building. At first we rode right past, ignoring the calls of the kid who had been helping Tomas with his paperwork. We stopped at a check point. By this time the kid had caught up with us and was shouting something. I’m guessing he told the guard we hadn’t imported our bikes. I strongly wanted him to leave us alone.

We went back to the building. The entrance was halfway down on the left hand side (as we approached the first time, it was on the right as we were turned back by the guard). We went into here and were served quickly by a pleasant woman. She came outside to the bikes and wrote down more information than I remember at any other border. She noted the colour, number of cyclinders, make and model, vin number, plate, and a few other things about the bike. Then she told us we needed that information to be typed into the computer. That meant waiting for the guy at the next window to finish the paperwork he was working on. The key word here is waiting.

We spent close to 3 hours in that office while the guy behind the desk processed one single set of paperwork. There were several vehicles all being imported together, on the back of a truck I think. It was the hottest part of the day and we were in full riding gear. I nearly melted in the waiting room. For some reason all the windows were closed, so the only ventilation was through the open door and one missing slat in one of the window. I could see an air conditioning machine inside the office where the officials were working. It was very hot and very sweaty. I slugged 3 cans of cold juice while we waited. After a couple of hours I went off and found some food, figuring we might be at the border all night.

Eventually, with some apology from the woman who first served us, we were given a typed version of what she had written. Then we needed to sign it and get it photocopied. (Short of travelling with a photocopier, there seems to be no way to avoid paying for photocopies at these borders.) She followed me to the copy shop and said they would pay for the 10c copy. I assumed it was to apologise for the agonising wait. As if to rub salt on the wound, it was another person who processed Tomas’s paperwork after we’d waited close to 3 hours. Presumably he could have processed our paperwork at any point during that 3 hour wait.

We smoked a victory cigarette, saddled up and rode like hell hoping to get somewhere with a hotel before dark. We made it to El Tunco pretty quickly from the border. Just over an hour if I remember correctly. We had made it into El Salvador in my longest ever border crossing.

The end of an era

After a couple of days on the beach (El Tunco and Playa San Diego) we rode the 35km to San Salvador. Tomas was having real trouble with his skin. It’s usually brought on by stress. He decided to stay in El Salvador and chill out for a while to get back into better health. The prospect of 2 border crossings in one day sounded like more stress than he needed. I’m ready to settle somewhere for a few weeks and I want to do that in Nicaragua, so I decided to press on. After about 6 weeks riding together, we were parting company.

It’s been really awesome riding with Tomas. After probably 7 or 8 months on the road alone, it’s been a real change to ride with somebody. A very positive change. Tomas is probably the only person I’ve travelled with for more than a month, and it was truly painless. I feel like I’ve made a very good friend for life.

After a quick breakfast and a final smoke, I said adios to Tomas and rode out of San Salvador heading for Nicaragua.

El Salvador to Honduras

As I approached the Honduras border people were frantically waving me down by the side of the road. I ignored them all. If anything, I sped up to pass them. I didn’t realise I was almost at the border and they looked dodgy as hell to me. In retrospect I’m guessing they were border “guides”. Locals who know the paperwork required to cross the border and who will “help” you for some kind of fee or tip.

Personally, I handle all my border paperwork myself. I don’t want anyone involved in my business, handling my passport, or otherwise interfering in my border crossing. I’m sure their help can be useful, and is probably cheap, but I’m innately sceptical of anyone who tries to pressure sell me into anything.

I arrived at the border sooner than I thought. I was expecting it to be another 20km or so. When I got there, checking out of El Salvador was easy. I went to 2 windows and got my passport stamped. I think I paid $3 for this. However, I had missed the point where I needed to check out my motorcycle. It was 3km back into El Salvador. I turned back, explained to the chemical spraying guys that I wasn’t entering, and got the bike checked out of El Salvador. For this I needed a copy of my entry paperwork into El Salvador. As usual, there was a conveniently placed copy shop ready to take a little money for a copy.

Then I returned to the border, again dodging the waving guides. I gave my newly stamped photocopy to the last border point on the El Salvadorian side and crossed the bridge.

In Honduras the process was a little more confusing. I arrived and was asked for my passport. That part was easy, I handed it over, they gave it back. Next I needed to import the bike. I asked a policeman where to do that and he told me to ride on, it wasn’t necessary. About 500m down the road a fella with a gun at a checkpoint told me it was necessary. So back I went. My biggest challenge was locating the office where I could actually do the paperwork. I’ll try to describe the scene for any would-be border crossers.

Coming over the bridge, there’s a large building in the centre of the road. The road splits around it. It has a large courtyard in the centre. On the right hand side, just slightly before the start of that building, there is a mostly unmarked building. There is a copy shop on the corner, parking spots in front. Inside there, with almost no signage of any kind, I was able to import my vehicle.

Firstly, I needed 3 copies each of my passport, title, driving license and exit paperwork from El Salvador. Then I handed over all 12 copies and $35 USD (they gave me change from $40) and waited. I was given back a form and they stamped my passport and wrote in my vehicle details. I then needed 5 copies of the form and 3 of my passport stamp, for a total of 20 copies. Finally, after returning with the copies, I was given back my documents and rolled onwards into Honduras.

I was given a form and a copy of the form. The copy was for the security guard just beyond the border. I gave it to him and was able to ride on.

The woman told me I did not need to do any exit paperwork in Honduras, I could just ride out.

This was probably the least painful part of my trip in Honduras. The whole process took just over an hour and would have been quicker if I’d stopped at the right place to begin with. For future note, the point to export the vehicle from El Salvador is right where you cross a speed bump. I flew over it passing a few trucks and ignoring the police standing by the side of the road. That was the spot!

3 hours in Honduras

Immediately after the security checkpoint was a police checkpoint. They waved me through and I carried on. In the next 200 km I went through either 9 or 10 police checkpoints. I started counting after the 3rd or 4th one. At the first checkpoint where I was asked to stop, they informed that I didn’t have reflective stickers on the side of my bike. It was a $100 ticket apparently.

I played dumb while they hassled other vehicles. Eventually I searched all my pockets and came out with a $5 bill. I had a $100 and a $20 bill in my passport wallet which I was hoping to keep, more on that later. Finally, the officer took my money and gave me back my driving license. This is where my international driving permit would have been really helpful. If I don’t get it back, I don’t care, I have another 2 with me. But foolishly I gave him my British license, a pain in the ass to replace, and much easier to enter the next country with.

I’d been in the country less than 20 minutes and I was a bit shaken up at the blatantly extortionist tactics of the police. At the next few police checkpoints I stayed behind other vehicles and passed them slowly as they were stopped. I figured by the time the police saw me I was already past. Then I came upon a checkpoint where there was no traffic waiting. Four officers were waving me down. I figured they were telling me to slow down, so I did, and I rode right through. I also figured, this is Central America, the police here have tiny little motorbikes and crappy old cars. They’ll never chase me, and if they do, no way in hell they’ll catch me. Wrong and wrong.

I chose to run from probably the only police checkpoint in Central America equipped with a Ford F350 super duty truck. For those not familiar with the absurdity of American trucks, the F350 has at least a 5.4 litre engine and, apparently, is damn fast. The police chased me from a standing start. I was doing about 60km/h as I passed them and quickly hit 130km/h. They caught me within 2 minutes. When I saw them coming, I pushed full throttle and the truck just kept coming. There was no way in hell I could outrun that monster.

When they did catch up with me, the police were a little irate. Apparently the issue was my speed. They made no mention of the fact I had not stopped, at least not that I understood in my very poor Spanish. They asked for my license, I handed over my disposable international drivers permit. They talked a lot about a ticket and about going back to the next city to pay it, etc. I played dumb saying mostly “no intiendo”, I don’t understand. At one point an officer pulled a US $10 bill out of his wallet and waved it at me talking about paying. I was in the shit now.

Eventually they told me to follow them back to town. I took my time putting on my helmet and gloves. A few cars passed me and they didn’t appear to be waiting for me. At this point they thought they had my driving license. They probably figured I couldn’t leave the country without it, so they had me by the balls. I considered making a second run for it at this point. If they had caught me more slowly in a less powerful vehicle the first time, I probably would have. I’d have happily left the international drivers permit behind and I was on my way to the border, as it turns out, probably never to return to Honduras.

I decided against trying to escape from the police twice in the same day. I followed them down the road. I came upon them stopped at a tienda (the equivalent of a corner store). They talked again about a fine. I asked if I could pay the fine here. They drove a bit further down the road and pulled over at a quiet point in the road. I pulled alongside and they said something about paying here. I asked how much. The game had begun. I only had a $20 bill and a $100 bill. I really did not want to pay $100.

They motioned for me to pull off the road. I stopped the bike and discreetly pulled out the $20 bill. I put it into my pocket. I went back to the window of the truck. They talked about a $200 fine at the police station. I explained that I didn’t have $200. I asked about a bank. Then I very slowly, very deliberately and very painfully searched all of my 7 pockets. I pulled out every scrap of paper, opened every bag and container, and inspected every item I was carrying. At one point I handed the policeman my $20 bill. I kept searching. Finally, he gave me back my driving license and they drove away. I had survived. I think their anger was giving way to boredom and frustration at that point.

I was now aware that the only cash I was carrying was a single $100 bill. If I had to bribe a third cop in Honduras, it would be expensive. The chances of getting change from a bent cop seemed pretty slim.

I made it through all but the last checkpoint in Honduras without stopping. This time the cop was standing beside the road with a couple of buddies. Dodgy looking characters in jeans and t-shirts. I only saw a small motorbike. I figured he’d never catch me, probably wouldn’t try. I passed him slowly. He blew his whistle and motioned for me to stop after I had passed him. I saw it in my mirror. After a split second deliberation, I stopped. Running hadn’t worked out well the first time.

His uninformed, unarmed, apparently unpolice buddies had no problem participating in my stop. I handed over a few documents. They looked the bike over touching a few things. I felt like a wounded animal being circled by a flock of vultures. I was very, very keen to get the hell out of Honduras at this point.

The cop gave me my documents back and another guy asked me, while smoking a cigarette, if I wanted to help. I played dumb again saying that I didn’t understand. As quickly as I could I threw my documents in my back pocket, pulled on my gloves, and took off.

Honduras to Nicaragua

I was very, very glad to see the Nicaraguan border. I had spent more than enough time in Honduras and at this point I was downright desperate to get out while I still had most of my money and all of my possessions. Total cost for my 3 hours in Honduras, $60: $35 in border fees, $25 in bribes. I think that officially makes Honduras the most expensive country per hour yet.

If I remember correctly, I didn’t do anything to leave Honduras. It’s a bit fuzzy now, the last three border crossings are starting to blur together. I think I just crossed into Nicaragua and started my paperwork there. I may have missed something in Honduras, but if I did, it wasn’t a problem in Nicaragua. As I have no desire to return to Honduras, I’m relaxed about it.

Getting into Nicaragua was fairly slow and somewhat painful. Initially I entered a long building next to the bank. There was a semi circular counter with a few cajas. I queued at the first one. It took about 20 or 30 minutes to get the counter. I paid $7, handed over my passport, and was stamped in. After very thoroughly examining my $100 bill, he gave me $93 change. Then I had to import the bike. I went down the hall to where a long, long queue of truck drivers were waiting. They pointed me at various cajas, but each one sent me back to the queue. Eventually, I took my place at the end of a line of probably 12 or 15 truck drivers. I was not optimistic about getting through in less than an hour. It looked like I’d be riding out from the border in the dark.

A Spanish couple in a mobile home arrived behind me. I had seen them at the first police checkpoint where I was “fined” for not having reflective stripes. They spoke very little English, but naturally, great Spanish. A woman appeared and told me I needed to pay $12 for insurance while in Nicaragua. I gave her a copy of my driving license, vehicle title and $12. She gave me a piece of paper that apparently I need to show to the police here. I have not yet had to show it to anyone, but it did all seem legitimate.

Somehow the insurance girl took the Spanish couple to another door where they were promptly served, ahead of me and the dozen truck drivers. I spotted them on the other side of the counter and I dashed over there. I asked if I might also import my bike there. Somewhat jovially, the same guy who had sent me back to the queue earlier agreed to sort out my paperwork. 20 to 30 minutes later I had all my documents sorted and I was on my way. He needed one copy each of my passport, driving license and vehicle title (all of which I had ready). He took that, some time, and no money and gave me some paperwork back.

I had crossed my second border in a day, third in a week, and most importantly, made it out of Honduras alive. I was grateful to be in Nicaragua, but I was also keen to find somewhere to sleep before dark. I was aiming for Esteli, but by some navigational misfortune I ended up in Leon. I think I crossed the wrong border for Esteli, that border is a bit further north. I wonder if there are any less police on that road.

I’m now at a fairly relaxed hostel called Big Foot in Leon. Seems like a nice little city. I’ve already run into 3 people I know from other places, so I’m feeling quite settled after my ordeal through Honduras. Now I’m hoping to spend some quality time in Nicaragua and get a feel for the country.

Ciudad Cuauhtemoc to La Mesilla

This morning we crossed the border from Mexico into Guatemala. It was painless. I read about a couple of guys who crossed in 20 minutes so I was confident it would be easy.

To start with we needed to leave Mexico. We missed the exit point which is about 3km from the border. It looked like a government building but didn’t look very border like. For future reference I think it’s here. After we back tracked we started at the Banjercito and checked out our motorbikes. The fella took photos of the VIN numbers then printed some papers and gave us a certificate showing we’d exported our bikes. No money required. Next we went to the next door building and exported ourselves from Mexico. Again, painless, and no money required.

Then we rode across the border and were flagged down by some fellas who wanted to spray the bikes. They asked for 13 quetzales for each bike. They didn’t take pesos. At this point we had some pesos left and no quetzales. Just our luck, there was a money changer on hand. He charged us 70 pesos for 30 quetzales, xe.com puts that at 45 pesos. An unnecessary expense of $2 USD, we’ll survive.

After our bikes were sprayed, we got in line at the Migracion office. A couple of buses had just arrived so there were a lot of people waiting in the midday heat. While Tomas stayed in line I went to the atm to get some quetzales at a slightly more reasonable rate. When I got back the queue had disappeared and Tomas had done his paperwork. I went into the office and after some confusion about my entry stamp into Guatemala exactly one year and one day ago, I was processed into Guatemala. Total cost, 20 Mexican pesos.

We went to the next building over to import our bikes. The process was painless. We needed our Mexican export certificate, title, license and passport. Four signatures later we went next door to the bank and paid the 40 quetzales fee. Then returned to the window to collect our paperwork and stickers for the bikes.

All paperwork completed, we were into Guatemala. The process took about 2 hours which was due in part to our confusion over the process, some waiting in line and then just the process. Althought it took longer than the entry into Mexico it felt decidedly more expedient. Personally, I spent much less time waiting than entering Mexico.

12 hours in Guatemala City

I’ve already spent 3 nights in Guatemala City. This afternoon, for the first time, I ventured into the city itself, leaving the safe confines of my hostel. Nataly very kindly volunteered to be my guide for the afternoon. She picked me up at the airport (5 minutes walk from the hostel) and we set off for the city. Our first stop was the central market for food. A piece of chicken in soup with rice. It was pretty good.

Chicken soup with rice

Here’s Nataly.

Nataly

Then we hit the central square.

Guatemala city central square

Guatemala city pigeons

Everything can be purchased on the streets of Guatemala City!

Everything can be purchased on the street

Guatemalan street stall

Then Nataly took me way up to a great little cafe overlooking the whole city. The view was tremendous, this picture does it little justice.

View overlooking Guatemala City

Not as many as Thailand or Vietnam, but there are lots of motorbikes on the roads of Guatemala.

Lots of motorbikes

It seems that bus seats are at something of a premium during peak times in Guatemala City. These poor chaps couldn’t even find standing room on the bus, it was holding on only room!

People hanging onto the bus

We went to a Taco restaurant for dinner. They have solved the problem of trying to catch the waiter’s eye. The table top menu display includes three buttons. I believe one summons the waiter, one requests the bill, and the third cancels the last request. I’ve thought this would be a great idea, but never seen it before today. Absolutely fantastic!

Tabletop waiter buttonstoil

The toilet in the restaurant had me a little confused. I went to wash my hands but I couldn’t find the sink. Then I realised, this was not a table or a display, it’s a sink! [I turned the tap on for the photo, it was off when I was looking for the sink!]

Clandestine sink

Then we hit a rather trendy electronic music bar called The Box. Two girls, two jackets, two giant bags and two beers were take into the toilet. Why these two girls were visiting the toilet so frequently, and together, I will leave up to your imagination. The shorter of the two, Gabby, asked me if Chrissy was my girlfriend. After clearing that up, she asked me to dance. I was quite flattered. Here’s Chrissy and Gabby bonding!

Chrissy meets Gabby

From Guatemala’s well dressed beautiful people (aka pretentious) we relocated to the bohemian side of town. Cien Puertas (100 doors I think) is a wonderful pedestrian space flanked by 6 different bars. There were quite a few quirkily interesting characters. The black and white witches summed up the group most easiliy in a single photograph I decided.

Black and white witches

The artist's courtyard

While waiting for the toilet to become vacant I spotted this notice. Israel / Palestine politics are an issue even in Guatemala.

Israel Palestine politics

When I made it into the toilet I snapped a shot of this graffitii for the sole reason that it was signed Sam, which made me think of Sam! [Anyone know what it says?]

Graffiti by Sam

Talking of Sam, it has been decided, I’m going to New York. While the exact timing of my arrival is still being somewhat debated, I am going. Next week I’ll be in Costa Rica, the following week in California with a client, and then onwards to New York.

Thanks to Nataly and Chrissy for an awesome afternoon and evening in Guatemala City. I feel like I saw more of Guatemala in these 12 hours than in my previous 11 days in the country. Guatemala City seems like both a dangerous yet colourfully vibrant city. The upscale side no longer holds much appeal to me, but the bohemian atmosphere, if a little hedonistic, does seem like fun.

Guatemalan photo catch up

Catching up on a few unposted photos. I’ll start vaguely in chronological order…

Caught a Chivas football game in Guadalajara. They are the only team in Mexico to have a team of only Mexican players. The game was interesting, 3-3 the final score. The crowd went absolutely nutso!

Sam and I stayed on Lake Atitlan in San Marcos for a couple of nights. This was the view from our bungalow on the first night.

View over Lake Atitlan

This morning we rose at 5:25am to catch the sunrise over the mangroves. Hard work this travelling lark!

Here’s a couple of shots of other tourists on another boat.

Boat silhouette standing

Boat silhouette moving

Our captain, tour guide and local connection, Sender, seen here standing majestically at the helm of his vessel.

Our boat and captain

The volcanoes around Lake Atitlan were visible in the distance.

Volcanoes in the distance

We stopped for a look inside the mangroves.

Touring the mangroves

Then back into our merry craft.

Back onto the boat

There were lots of local fishermen out at sunrise.

Local fishermen

We got back to the hotel and ran into our friend Felix, wearing only a towel and carrying a one-eyed parrot!

Felix and the one eyed parrot

Then over breakfast I heard a strange sounding “Hola” from behind the next table. Turned out there was a chatty little parrot in town!

That concludes this edition of MacNews. Check back soon for more exciting action! 🙂