Border Procedures from El Salvador to Costa Rica
Two weeks ago we drove our 4x4 down from San Salvador to Costa Rica, passing through Honduras & Nicaragua with our family for easter vacation. I've been riding motorbikes on and off road here for 2 years, but until now have always headed north to Guatemala without major incidents. Our experience to the south was not as smooth. I've recapped the border details for anyone heading this way.
Please note that our travel was during easter week, a period of high activity at borders in Central America. Also, we were travelling with 6 persons in our vehicle. That implied filling out 6 sets of personal information documents and one for the vehicle. This translated into a fixed time of about 10 minutes for filling out documents between my wife & I at each stop (otherwise a 3 minute stop for a solo traveller).
The remainder of the time spent at each crossing reflected the amount of people there (and each stop's inefficiencies), which varied considerably. One tip: if you see a bus in front of you near a border, do your best to pass it before its passengers disembark ahead of you.
Another tip: don't stand in line to get forms. Walk up to the window where the immigration officer is & request the form. Get in line with the form & fill it out as you approach again. Some people unwittingly get in slow lines twice-- once for the form & once to hand it in. It's not considered rude to go to the head of theline & get a form so long as you retreat afterwards.
I've been asked by travellers whether insurance is mandatory down here: The only country south of Mexico (in Central America)
requiring it is Costa Rica, regardless of where your bike is registered. At the Costa Rican border I happened to run into a Japanese world biker (he's taken 8 months to get down the Costa Rica on a Suzuki DR 850 after flying his bike to Canada & will take another 1.5 years to get back home)-- it's a small world, we'd met briefly in Antigua Guatemala 3 weeks ago a BMW rally. He was travelling with a Japanese license plate & was not asked for any insurance in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador nor Belize. In Costa Rica, however, you must purchase insurance at the border. It was $20 for 30 days, and his bike paid the same as my 4x4. My 4x4 has insurance valid
throughout Central America, but it seems that Costa Rica gets additional revenues from travelers by charging for this insurance. He also mentioned that he only purchase 30 days' insurance for Mexico & wound up staying far longer yet no one asked him for his insurance there & he had no problems exiting with expired insurance.
All border crossings were absolutely terrible. The offices are hot (as hot
as 100 degrees), dirty, inefficient, packed with people and corrupt. In relative terms, the crossings in El Salvador and Guatemala are efficient compared to those in Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The basic ritual
was similar at each crossing: fill out a standardized entry/exit form and fill out documents for your vehicle. Non-Central Americans (I and 2 of my sons were travelling with US passports) may have to fill out additional paperwork and pay additional "taxes".
Our first crossing was at Amatillo between El Salvador and Honduras Saturday before last. The road to Amatillo is bumpy but paved all the way from San Salvador & ok for dual sport bikes with long travel suspensions. The Salvadoran immigration offices worked reasonably well (about 20 minutes).
The Honduran side was one of the worst during the trip. There were about 200 people standing in line in the morning sun waiting to present their passports. It would have taken us about 5 hours to stand in that line. The facilities were decrepit, filthy & dusty.
Upon seeing our relatively new 4x4's, several "helpers" immediately jumped
toward us to facilitate our passage. These guys work directly with the immigration officers and also "reserve" advanced spots in the line that stretched the equivalent of a few blocks. All claim to have good
connections but not all actually do so you need to make a quick pick based on a few questions-- if the helper doesn't convince you shortly thereafter it's time to pick another one. At this first crossing we initially made a poor pick (a duo from El Salvador that didn't have connections on the
Honduran side) and immediately switched to more official looking one who did a good job of shepherding our documents. Even so, the process took about 1.5 hours to clear our passports and the vehicle papers under a
At this crossing we were introduced to another border business-- photocopies. Interestingly enough, the borders that require photocopies only have one place that offers them. The charge wasn't excessive, but you have to wonder how the photocopy profits are divvied up. For 12 persons
travelling in 3 vehicles, we wound up paying around $60 for official and non-official charges. The officials charges were slightly less than half that total, but wasting another 4 hours in line with the kids in the sun was not an option.
One final lesson learned at this crossing-- many of these borders close at noon-- and not necessarily all the offices close at the same time. You also need to be mindful of the closing hour for the borders. Amatillo closes at 5pm. Others closed as late as 10pm.
In Honduras we rushed to the Guasaule border with Nicaragua (about 130kms). The road was full of potholes, and bridges were still washed out at some river crossings but the route was fine for dual sport bikes. We saw no police along the way and hammered the 4x4's at 120 to 140 Kms/hr. We arrived at noon. There were much less people there than Amatillo. The Honduran side was uneventful-- the crossing took around 1 hour and 15 minutes.
On the Nicaraguan side, the facilities were better, but the processing was less efficient. There was practically no one entering Nicaragua with us.At this crossing you're required to stop at a small booth with immigration officers to fill out your personal and vehicle forms. As I menitoned, all crossings require you to fill out a standard immigration form which you must
request from one of the immigration officers who receives and processes the filled out forms. This means every person that arrives needs to interrupt the line, wait for the officer to recognize him and to provide him with the number of forms he may need (as I said at the outset, don't be shy about going straight to the head of the line to get the forms-- and then retreating to the line).
We got our forms, filled them out & handed them in. No go--the non Central
Americans in the group needed to go to the main building and pay $7 per passport. Furthermore, we couldn't clear the cars until the drivers' passports cleared. At this point we sought out a "helper". It also turned out that photocopies were required too. All in all this took about 1 hour and 15 minutes. This crossing has several duty free shops that are air
conditioned-- probably the best place to wait for others if you're finished
or for your travel companions to hang out while you do the paperwork. The
highlight of the stop was when an immigration officer ceremoniously
announced we'd have to take our vehicle papers to the department of transit
after she finished handling them. When we asked where that might be, she simply pointed the officer standing next to her!
We drove from Guasaule to Montelimar, Somoza's former beach residence which is now a Barcelo resort. Speeding is not an issue in Nicaragua, but locals reported that police are strict in terms of crossing over solid yellow lines. We sped and heeded the no-passing zones. The road leading into the
country was one of the worst we encountered, with large potholes. While Honduras is a poor country, Nicaragua is even more so. The border region is parched-- it's used for cattle. In Nicaragua we saw many more people on horseback and bicycles than in the preceding countries, and the aging Ladas
and Jawas on the roads gave away the country's not too distant communist bent. This was also one of the hottest parts of the trip; the SUV's thermometer registered 102 degrees Fahrenheit.
Montelimar felt like a tropical hotel from the 60's. We rode ATV's with our kids on the beach-- the area is nearly virgin-- there were no restrictions on riding right on the beach and just a few Kms away we saw a
great variety of tropical birds.
After a couple of nights in Montelimar we headed for the border with Costa Rica at Penas Blancas. The Nicaraguan facilities were the most modern of the entire trip-- they seemed brand new. Here we were required to get photocopies after standing in line for some time. The photocopy place was about 100 yards away-- not usually much but temps around 100 degrees lend a
new dimension to the 200 yard round trip trot. After getting the copies we
returned to a wooden annex to the new facilities in which an officer typed up, in triplicate with carbon paper, a document for each vehicle. With this document you're then instructed to find the inspector who is supposed to take a look at your vehicle (he doesn't). The only problem is that you have
no way of identifying the inspector so here again a "helper" comes in handy to track the inspector down. After getting the inspector's signature, we headed back into the wooden annex where we interrupted a young officer who was reading the day's news who subsequently informed us we needed another copy (another 200 yard trot in 102 degree weather). After providing the
copy that was it-- off to the Costa Rican side after another 1.5 hours of questionable bureaucracy.
The Costa Rican stop was probably the greatest shock of the trip in terms of
border crossings. Costa Rica has built a solid reputation in terms of promoting tourism, being democratically advanced and having some of the best institutions in this part of the world. The border crossing, however, was the worst, on par with the Honduran crossing at Amatillo. The facilities were abysmal, and to boot there was no electricity. Fortunately we'd
contracted a "helper" with a bicycle. He reviewed our documents and indicated we'd need several copies. Here I ran into the Japanese traveler I mentioned (luckily for him), and we sent off the helper with our documents(and his) back to the Nicaraguan side to get photocopied (since there was no
local electricity)-- about a 2 km trek. We could not have taken the papers ourselves in our vehicles because we'd already cleared immigration on the Nicaraguan side-- we were literally stuck. It also happened to be lunch time, so the officers weren't rocessing anything until 12:30 PM, and the
place filled up with everyone who filed in (and had little hope of getting photocopies made).
By the time 12:30 P.M. came 'round, we had our copies in hand and within 30 minutes we made it to the window at the front of the line with our Japanese acquaintance. The Japanese biker was right in front of me-- he handed over his papers and they were all in Kanji!! The look on the immigration officer's face was priceless when she saw the page filled with Japanese characters. After her initial puzzlement, she informed him in Spanish (he spoke none) that she'd need to input his info into the computer & there was no electricity so she couldn't. I intervened & at least got her to agree to
take care of this guy once the power got back & by the time we were finished
it did return. My intervention did not please the officer though, who seemed content to speak in Spanish to someone she knew didn't understand a word she said. When my turn came round she happily informed me she neededone more photocopy of my passport because I was a resident of El Salvador (seemed like a bogus request as any US citizen can enter Costa Rica) -- this
meant sending the cyclist back to Nicaragua. As I left the line to seek our
helper I reviewed the copies & found that by chance the residence permit was stamped in a page that had been copied & she neglected to recognize-- I was barely able to avoid what would have been another 45 minute delay.
After asking around it seems the Costa Ricans have intentionally let these border facilities deteriorate along with the service they offer. Costa Rica is being flooded with immigrants from Nicaragua and from some countries further north such as Guatemala and El Salvador and a complicated and unfriendly border crossing is deemed to be appropriate to discourage this flow. Costa Rican paranoia regarding the rising immigration is evident in the kilometers immediately after the border where there are several checkpoints that require passports and vehicle papers.
Luckily our stay in Costa Rica was in stark contrast to our border experience. We drove to Playa Tambor-- an excellent beach area. There are two options to reaching Playa Tambor: taking a ferry from the mainland or
driving down the country's western peninsula where the beach is located.
Fearing 7 and 8 hour waits to get on the ferry (that proved to be the case
given Easter week), we drove-- the roads were tough rock strewn roads
appropriate only for 4x4's, off road bikes or mules. Monkeys filled several trees along the way. A few days later we went to the Eco Lodge (somewhat) near the Arenal Volcano. The place to stay in the Arenal vicinity is probably Fortuna though, which we visited later. There are hot springs
worth a visit right by the volcano (Tabacon hot springs) with water temps in excess of 100 degrees.
Costa Rica is the strictest country in the region in terms of speed limits. Limits are low and paved roads are well patrolled with officers wielding radars. If you're caught speeding, your license plate is seized until you pay your fine. We saw numerous cars without plates. Of the countries we visited, Costa Rica is probably the most bike friendly-- there are a lot of motorcycles on the roads.
A final note in terms of the borders-- aside from the Costa Rican checkpoints outside the border, no one checked our passports in terms of having cleared immigration-- we were only asked for vehicle papers at each
crossing's exit. We could have been transporting 10 people just as easily
On the return trip today the number of people we found at each border crossing varied from the first time around, but the procedures were the same. We found the longest line entering Honduras (about 2 blocks), but managed to find a well connected helper who got our passports stamped in about 15 minutes. We also set our record for a border crossing-- we spent
50 minutes to clear the Honduran/Salvadoran border right before lunch time (we were the last to get through)-- a crossing that had taken over twice that going south.
In short--travelling south of here requires patience, being prepared for the heat (maybe a Camelback) and being wide awake at the immigration offices to clear as quickly as possible.