Border Crossings - Central America
Tips and tricks:
by Dom Harris, 2012
These are my recent border crossings from Mexico through Central America to Colombia from late October - September 2012 to the best of my recollection. The immigration processes I've listed apply to an Australian and the vehicle processes apply to a USA title and registered bike. I used the drive the Americas website as a guide which was fairly accurate at the time and HUBB postings. My Spanish is pretty basic but somehow effective.
USA-Mexico Santa Teresa border: Crossed 26/8/12.
Border is about 15 miles west of the main El Paso/Ciudad Juárez border. First got insurance (mandatory in Mexico) at Palms Mexico Insurance, Paisano Office near central El Paso, took 20 mins. There's another one out near Santa Teresa. Got it for 21 days cost USD$113.46. If you leave Mexico earlier than the insurance goes for, you can apparently get credited back the money at their other offices near the other USA, Guatemala or Belize borders. Also exchanged USD for Mexican pesos in downtown El Paso (for a pretty good rate) to get me a fair way into Mexico without having to hit up an ATM. The nearest gas station to the border is at the interstate turn off to Santa Teresa if you want to get as far as you can into Mexico.
No exit stamp required from USA side I was told, as they only deal with the green slips which they staple in passports at land border crossings. They apparently have no electronic connection to immigration at airports (I originally flew into LA and was given the 3 month tourist visa stamped in my passport).
Border was very chilled out. They first had a quick search of my bike (don't bring a gun as many of the signs suggest). Went to Mexican immigration for entry stamp, no charge. Next to Aduana (vehicle entry) in same office to get temporary vehicle import paper and sticker for 45 pesos or USD$3.50. The guy told me not to put it on the windscreen in case it was "souvenired" and keep it safe. You also have to pay a refundable deposit to the Mexican government for your bike of 5830 pesos or USD$449, so you don't leave the bike in Mexico. If you pay cash you get cash back when you exit Mexico the same goes with a credit card refund. Next, copies are needed of all the paperwork, there's a copy guy in the same building cost 26 pesos or USD$2.00. Then you're good to go. Whole process took about 30 mins. If you're edgy about the border region, I was advised to take the toll roads which are supposedly patrolled more by police. They are also well kept and don't go through towns which really can slow you down. Although you don't want to spend your whole journey on boring toll roads. There's plenty of PEMEX gas stations along the way. You'll need a bunch of pesos too for the toll roads, I paid 85 pesos or USD$6.50 from the border to Chihuahua, where I stayed the first night. There's secure garaged hotels/motels in town.
Mexico, Chetumal-Belize Border: Crossed 15/9/12.
Border is well signposted from Chetumal.
First got the Mexican exit stamp from the tiny little hut (no charge), then was directed by the guards and parked next to the Mexican !duana Gave the temporary import paper back and they gave me a receipt saying the funds would be transferred back into my credit card over the next few days (I lost a little $ due to the exchange rates, should have handed over cash originally).
Then it's a 2 minute ride where you get flagged down to have your bike fumigated $USD2.50 and they give you a receipt. Then another 2 minutes to the main immigration building to get stamped in, cost nothing, they just asked how many days I wanted in Belize. I made the mistake of saying I was in transit and they gave me only 2 days!. !duana in same building, didn't check the bike at all or issue temporary import paper, just a vehicle stamp in passport with my bike make, colour and plate scribbled down. Next drove down the road another 2 mins to the Insurance Company of Belize building. Friendly Raul filled out the insurance paperwork, paid the minimum of 7 days for USD$29. I was advised that it was mandatory in Belize to have insurance. Whole process took about 40mins. Plenty of accommodation, fuel and ATM's just after the border in the lovely beachside town of Corozal.
Belize-Guatemala, Melchor de Mencos Border: Crossed 16/9/12.
There's only one well signposted border crossing.
Belize immigration gave exit stamp in passport 37 Belizean dollars(BZD) or USD$18.50 and !duana gave an exit stamp in passport (no charge).
Motorbikes didn't have to get fumigated, you're just signalled to drive around the side of the fumigator shed. Unfortunately I misunderstood this signal and got fumigated with the bike, cost 12 Guatemalan Quetzales (GTQ) or USD$1.50. Then got entry stamp in passport for USD$2.50 or GTQ20 at immigration and combined Aduana building. Guy at Aduana was painfully slow, got the SAT temporary vehicle import paper and sticker for my windscreen valid for 90 days. I was told to hand this over as I left Nicaragua or if I left Guatemala. This paper has some affiliation with Honduras and Nicaragua, although I still had to do all the usual vehicle entry requirements in those countries. This paper I believe was then cancelled when I left Nicaragua, so it was worth keeping. I guess you would get this vice versa if you were coming north into Nicaragua. The fee for the vehicle temporary import paper was GTQ160 or USD$20. I was told insurance wasn't necessary. Whole process took about 1hr and 30mins. There's a real nice hotel just after the turn off to Tikal about 1hr 30mins ride from the border overlooking the lake, with aircon and a great restaurant. Think there was gas and ATM's at the Guatemalan border, but it was nighttime so not too sure. Gas stations were on the Belize side.
Guatemala-Honduras, Corinto Border: Crossed 18/9/12.
The immigration office (sign posted) is about 10kms back from the Honduran side and the Aduana 15 mins back from the immigration office. The Aduana was not signposted, just a small office with a blue door after a small bridge, I think called Rio Negro. Got my immigration exit stamp (no charge). No one could tell me exactly where the Aduana was and rode around the nearby town trying to find it. After some bad directions I ended up driving 15kms back to Puerto Barrios where I was eventually directed to an Aduana They gave me the exit papers with copies (no charge, still kept some of the original SAT for the Nicaraguan exit to show) and asked why I hadn't gone to the one near the border? They explained exactly where it was and told me I have to give the copies to that office. Drove back to the un-sign posted Aduana near the border and handed over the photocopies. Took about 2hrs 30mins, should have taken about 30 mins.
At immigration, passport was stamped, entry fee cost USD$3 or 58 Honduran Lempiras(HNL). !duana was in a building across the car park. The lady at the office checked my paperwork, issued me the temporary import paper and stamped the entry in my passport (no charge). Then had to walk 100m into Honduras to get photocopies of the documents, passport entry stamp etc. USD$1.20 or HNL24. Returned back to Aduana and handed over photocopies. I was told insurance was not necessary. Could then drive into Honduras. Fumigation guys told me to pass and was not necessary. Whole process took around 1hr 30mins. Nothing really at the border until around Puerto Cortez, where there are nice hotels, restaurants, gas, ATM's etc.
Honduras-Nicaragua, Las Manos Border: Crossed 20/9/12.
As it was along one of the main borders, there was a heavy traffic jam of 10kms up to border. A lot of annoying helpers, although some may be selling insurance.
Immigration and Aduana in same building with different offices. Passport stamped out (no fee). At Aduana vehicle temporary import paper taken and exit stamp put in passport (no fee).
Directed to fumigation (no cost), didn't even give receipt of fumigation. First to immigration to get a tourist card and receipt with stamps cost USD$12 or 282 Nicaraguan Cordoba Oros (NIO). Although looking at my entry receipt now it says 44.28 cordobas, someone may want to check what the real cost is and post it. Insurance helper guy pestering me was hanging around while I got the entry stamp, immigration officer knew of the guy and said that insurance was necessary and the guy was ok to buy from. Insurance cost USD$12 or NIO282. Vehicle permit took ages due so lots of helpers doing truckers papers and a general slow process. Showed all the usual paperwork and was given the temporary vehicle permit (no charge). Had to also pay a road tax of USD$1 or NIO24 (receipt was given) to the guard at the border, before another border guard who checked all my other paperwork would let me pass. Whole process took about 1 hr. 30 mins. Couldn't find any sign posted hotels until Esteli which was around 100kms into Nicaragua. Think there were a few gas stations on the way though.
Nicaragua-Costa Rica, Penas Blancas Border: Crossed 22/9/12.
Usual Pan Am heavy traffic jam coming up to border. Also about 10 helpers rushed out at me to get business as I entered the Nicaraguan exit, nearly hit them. Definitely be cautious. Bit more of a run around than other borders, as there are 4 different buildings which you have to go to several times to get everything done. I would have preferred to go to the more mellow Los Chiles border but I was pressed for time. You have to drive a fair way into Costa Rica to get insurance and back to this border to get properly stamped in though.
!duana and immigration in same building. Showed tourist permit paper and passport to immigration who stamped out passport and also tourist form. Cost USD$1.85 or 44NIO. Make sure you go to the exit side of immigration (2 separate offices) and not the entry, as they think you have just entered and try to get the entry fee again off you. Then you get directed to take your vehicle to across the parking lot to a policeman who checks your papers and is supposed to search your vehicle and signs them. He didn't search my bike, just signed them and directed me back to the Aduana where you hand over all the paperwork. They didn't seem to care too much about the SAT paperwork or sticker from Guatemala. Just took the Nicaraguan paperwork, signed, stamped it and kept it.
Enter Costa Rica:
No fumigation necessary, just waved me through. Waited in line behind about 100 tourists for about 50 mins and got stamped in (no cost). Next ride 2 mins away from the immigration building where all the trucks are parked up. This is where the insurance office and Aduana #2 is located, to get necessary insurance - cost USD$17. Get a photocopy of this and also your Costa Rican immigration entry stamp at the building next door, cost USD$2.00 or 1000 Costa Rican Colons (CRC). Next back to Aduana #1 (building across from immigration) to show all the paperwork and hand over the copies. The guy then checks the bike, gives you a paper to copy at the copy place next door USD$1 or 500CRC and give one back to him (no charge for Aduana #1). Then go back to Aduana #2 where they take all the copies and issue you your temporary vehicle permit (no charge). Nothing stamped in passport. Whole process took about 2hrs. There was hotels down towards Liberia and beyond. Most places take USD.
Costa Rica-Panama, Sixaola Border:
Border crossed 24/9/12. No gas stations on the Costa Rica side. Note: this border isn't a 24hr job. It closes around 6pm, so get there early. I nearly didn't make it, getting there at 430pm and just finishing at 6pm and there was only 2 people in line ahead of me. The Panamanian dollar had the same exchange rate as the USD so everyone pretty much uses the currency which the ATM's distribute.
Exit Costa Rica:
Immigration gave exit stamp (no charge). Vehicle permit was taken and cancelled (no charge), nothing stamped in passport.
Cross over bridge. Paid kid USD$0.50c to watch bike as it was out of sight. Get insurance first (was told it was necessary by some police, but they were a little unsure) upstairs at the nearby building in the shop, cost USD$15. Then up the stairs to a small combined Aduana and immigration building. Got stamped in to Panama (no charge), then 2 doors down to Aduana #1 to get a little sticker in my passport for vehicle. Paid USD$3 then the guys joked and said no its $5 for a moto, seemed pretty dodgy guys. I paid the $3 and they handed back my passport. I asked for a receipt but they wouldn't give me one. Then next door to Aduana #2 where the guy took forever and eventually handed me the temporary vehicle import paper (no charge). There's not really any hotels, gas stations or ATM's until around Changinola. Whole process took 2 hrs.
Panama to Cartagena Colombia by Boat:
Panama border departure 27/9/12 Colombia entry 1/10/12. I sailed with Fritz on Jacqueline organized through Hostel Mamallena in Panama, which departed from the main Pier at the Kuna portside town of Carti Suitupo.
On the road to Carti Suitupo you have to pay a USD$9 tax to the Kuna at a boom gate. Make sure you go to the pier near the airport to load your bike (I was misdirected to the place where the small boats take people out to the sailboats and lost $30 from the Kuna on a circular boat trip with my bike). Then pay USD$20!! Again at another boom gate to get access to the pier to load your bike onto the ship (don't think the Stahlratte guys have to do this). Road to pier takes about 1hr from the main highway. After departing from Carti Suitupo on the sailboat, you head out to one of the nearby islands in the San Blas. The captain collects your passport and vehicle import paper. Takes to the island himself and gets an exit stamp for your passport (the small fees are included in the boat ticket). The vehicle permit was handed back with no apparent markings on it. Presumably it may have been cancelled by the immigration, but I can't say for sure. Took around 1 hr waiting on the boat.
After arriving on dry land in the open port in Cartagena (there is no secure port as you just get the dingy up to a jetty) you get a taxi with the captain and crew to the Colombian immigration office about 5 mins away.
The captain takes the passports of all the passengers into the office, gets the entry stamps and hands back the passports (no fee, in boat ticket?). The captain kept the passports until after we got stamped into Colombia which is the norm.
After immigration was done, we were approached by a dodgy German speaking helper called Manuel, who obtained our passports from the captain and told us (there were 2 motorbike riders on board) that he would sort out our bike paperwork for USD$35 each at the DIAN (Colombian vehicle entry/ Aduana). He also exaggerated that it was a difficult process to do as the office may be at lunch and you have to know who to talk to, the officials were dodgy and it could take a few days blah blah blah. We both decided to get our passports back off this scammer, who was obviously trying to make out that it was more difficult than it was.
After having crossed 7 Mexican and Central American Borders you kind of get the gist of how borders work. Immigration took 1hr.
Next back to the boat to unload the bikes and the captain pointed us in the general direction of the DIAN around near the main port. Took about 1hr 30mins to eventually get there after asking a lot for directions (most people knew where it was), probably usually a 40 minute 10 mile drive. I would suggest however paying a cab driver to get you there, or maybe Fritz by then would have started to take his motorbike passengers there and help sort their paper work as the Stahlratte Captain does. You can park pretty safely in the large car park.
Inside the main office (its quite large) just ask for the person who does the paperwork for the vehicle imports. You then fill out the form, they do the usual check of documents, then check the bike VIN numbers and then print out your temporary import paper (no charge). All done, no agent needed and in a nice air-conditioned office with the beautiful Colombians.
We were informed also that insurance is mandatory (I have also had to show my insurance several times already in Colombia). Not really knowing where to go for insurance, we headed back to the Colombia Mamallena Hostel to park up the bikes. Then googled some insurance companies and walked 15 mins to the nearby Seguros Del Estado. They checked all the paperwork, including vehicle import and gave us minimum insurance for the 3 months our visas were valid for. I think you can get it for a year if you want for the same price. I'm sure there's probably cheaper insurers (and probably one closer to the DIAN) if you shop around, but we just got this one in a hurry. Cost around USD$50.
Paperwork: Most, if not all borders required: a valid passport (did not need a visa to enter any country), title of bike, registration paper with matching licence plate, valid original drivers licence (although my copied one sufficed many times except in Nicaragua and Mexico).
When exiting and entering countries general rule: Get exit stamps in passport for yourself then exit stamps in passport or hand over paperwork to get stamped out for your bike. Then get entry stamps for yourself, then entry stamps/paperwork for your bike.
Take a heap of USD$1 and a few $5 and $10 for all of the Central American border crossings, there are plenty of ATM's to cash up at the nearest towns. Know the exact exchange rate at the border if you are to use USD. All money changers I talked to generally had pretty bad rates as they thrive on you not knowing what the current exchange rates are. They are at every border.
You can easily split lanes through all of the border traffic to get to the front of the line and you can park right outside the Aduana and immigration offices.
Most Aduana officers checked that I had an exit stamp or paper(s) for the country I was leaving before they would issue me a permit for their country. Some border crossings had electronic scanners for the passport. Let the immigration officer know the maximum or minimum amount of days to stamp in your passport, most gave 3 months.
All borders had police/army checkpoints immediately at the border and again somewhere down the road after borders checking paperwork, I would advise obtaining the correct paperwork/insurances.
Good to have spare black and white copies of at least your passport, title, registration and drivers licence. A few borders will ask for copies and it's handy having one less thing to do. Probably smart to photocopy/scan the new vehicle documents/ receipts, passport stamps given, when you get to the next town after the border. If you lose them it would be a major hassle to get replacement ones. At the border exits they sometimes take the paperwork, so also a good reason to keep a copy for you records.
If you somehow got your licence plates lost/ souvenired, it would be a major hassle. Have them scanned, printed and laminated in case the worst happens. At least you could then confirm it with the registration papers and not get pulled over if your laminate is pretty good. A digital photo could also be a good back up to show the officials. All border crossing Aduana officers (except at Nicaragua and Belize) checked the bike VIN and licence plate numbers to match my paperwork.
It's good to learn the most basic Spanish words at the border as it will make life easy, although I honestly think if you just hand all over all your paperwork and passport you wouldn't have to speak a word. You don't need a helper or need to pay anyone . Although I may have had good luck compared to others. All the border officials basically wanted to check my papers were legitimate and get me through. Didn't have any dodgy officials at all.
Most of border officials only spoke Spanish except some English at: Mexico Aduana and immigration entry and Aduana exit, Belize Aduana and immigration entry and exit, Honduran Aduana entry and Costa Rica Immigration entry. Good Spanish is not necessary, they understand what you want to do.
If you can, ask the border officials at the entry ports to the country if there are any exit fees for yourself or the vehicle at the other side, so you know what to expect.
If you're lost (and you probably will be), just ask anyone where to go, everyone is generally helpful. Some of the borders have very annoying helpers trying to get your business. Generally they will stop bugging you immediately after you tell them no thanks and ignore them.
Most borders had an arrival form to fill out with the usual questions i.e. name, passport etc. Many of the forms had English as well as Spanish words in them. Immigration forms asked what your address was in the country, although I may have made up a few hotel names it probably would be wise to research a hotel name across the border somewhere.
If things change at border crossings from posts like this on any of these travelers websites, please inform others to make life easy.
Thanks for reading
Hope this is of some help
This posting is mostly pertaining to crossing borders in Central America with a motorcycle or a car. Though obviously my experience was with a motorcycle, I'm sure having a car is very similar but brings up its own nuances. If you're lucky enough to be on a regular bus or a tour bus without a vehicle to deal with, the basic procedures are the same except it's less paper work and expense. If your hitchhiking (and I did see at least one person doing that) walking (didn't see anyone doing that) or riding a peddle bike I'm not sure what different procedures you might encounter but just the fact you're not driving should make the procedure simpler (if that's possible) and cheaper. I would like to hear from anyone who has hitched or walked through Central America.
The basic procedures for crossing borders In Central America are as follows. First you need to get your passport stamped out of the country you're leaving at Migracione (migration) and than get your vehicle permit and the permit for yourself canceled at Aduanas (customs) for that country (it may not be in this order at every country). Upon entering the next country you get your passport stamped in at migration and than go to customs for permits for the vehicle and yourself. That's basically it, migration and customs for the country your leaving and migration and customs for the country your entering. The amount of time and money you spend doing this simple process can vary considerably.
When you get to Aduanas (customs) to get the vehicle and your own permits they are usually good for 30 to 90 days, but check to make sure their for as long as you want, 90 is the max but they will often put just 30 down if you don't ask them for more (and don't let them charge you more for more days). As already mentioned when your leaving a country you need to first have your passport stamped out of that country and than again go to customs to have the vehicle permit (and your own) canceled. This is very important for in the case of Mexico if you don't cancel your vehicle permit on leaving, you may not be allowed back into the country ever (I'm not sure if this is just with a vehicle or is a life time ban on yourself as well), they figuring you sold it for a big profit without paying duty or import fees.
Its worth noting that the only places you should be spending money (outside of handlers fees or having someone watch your bike if you choose to use them) while crossing borders is when your getting your passport stamped in and out at migration (these are often the cheapest charges ranging from $0-$10) and at customs when you pay for the vehicle permit, your permit, possibly your vehicle insurance (some countries seem to require it, I bought no special insurance for the trip, basically I was uninsured as most motorcycles are that go south of the border, it is way too expensive, hundreds or maybe even a couple of thousand dollars for full coverage for a long trip), and any other charges like vehicle spraying.
Having your bike sprayed with insecticides is required to enter Nicaragua and Guatemala and the charge is usually $2-$4.
Costa Rica requires vehicle insurance and was $25 for ninety days.
Also having copies of everything is important, as many as you need for the amount of borders your crossing. You should have copies of your title (try never to use the original by the end of the trip it will be worn out), drivers license, passport, insurance (whether its valid in that country or not) and vehicle registration. Know where your serial numbers are on your bike, they will want to see them at every border and check them with your title.
Handlers will often want to run off with some of your copies or make copies after they have been stamped for another $2. I did not include copying charges in all this because they did not amount to much and having my own I often did not need to pay to have them made (but for some reason often did anyway). It's hard to know what is necessary in regards to copies without being able to talk to an official directly, at least having your own copies cuts down on some of this nonsense.
Nicaragua like Costa Rica is another country that apparently requires vehicle insurance to enter though I've heard varying reports. For me they told me I had already bought some on my trip down and didn't need to buy it going back (the problem with not speaking the language and using handlers, you never know what you are or aren't getting). All this is debatable, certain bikers say they just refuse to pay it and don't. Or you hear other stories of people going all the way through these countries without paying hardly anything. Knowing the language and having a basic knowledge of border crossings can save you a lot of money no doubt, but I've also heard some of the most outrageous claims like one guy saying he only spent $12 to drive from the U.S. to Argentina on border fees.
Customs is really the place where the hidden fees are, unclear charges and corruption can lie. If you're going to get ripped off, here's the place. They may try to sell you bike insurance you don't need, or say the vehicle permit is good for all Central American countries when its not (saying that's why it's so expensive), or make something up like your title is not the original so they need to charge more. As in the case of Honduras and Guatemala this is where both the vehicle and my permit came to $250-$300 contributing to a staggering sum of $630 just to cross those two borders. On my return trip coming back the total for both borders was about $80! Later in this post I describe strategies one can employ to try to reduce some of these risks of getting ripped off.
Tips for keeping your money in your wallet
Ideally before you go spend two years studying and becoming fluent in Spanish.
Realistically; write out the actual Spanish phrases you'll need to know to ask directions and cover all the procedures, like
- ?donde estas aduanas? (where is customs?)
- ?quanto questa? how much is it?
- How much is a vehicle permit?
- How long is it good for?
- Where is migracion? etc.
Everything you can think of that you might need to know and have them handy (having practiced basic phrases will help you countless times on you trip, not only at border crossings).
- Write down what the actual border procedures are, which are you go through migracion and aduanas of the country you're leaving, and then migracion and aduanas of the country your entering.
You can try to write to each embassy of the countries your visiting and ask them to send you all the expected fees for your border crossings. It is doubtful you will get many responses, but if you can manage to secure something that looks official with some sort of expected price it could carry a lot of weight. Remember these border guys are looking for easy targets and the more road blocks you can throw at them the better. Guatemala and Honduras were the most corrupt borders and remember all handlers and officials are not corrupt or out to get you, but the ones that are have it down to a science.
In the end if you feel like you're getting totally ripped off, have a back up plan. You can refuse to pay and either go back to the country you came from and wait for a different time to come back (often if you're not driving very far into the country they may not charge you a vehicle permit to simply spend one night. Mexico has a 20 mile buffer zone around the border so you don't have to get a vehicle permit if you're simply visiting a border town), or you can look at trying a different border crossing (most countries except for Costa Rica have at least two) spending the time to drive to another one.
Going back the way you came to find another one sounds like a hassle (and it is), but it could save you 2 or 3 hundred dollars (or at least give you the satisfaction of knowing you didn't give in to some ones corruption). When planning ones trip if possible one should try to plan on quieter border crossings (like non Pan American Hwy. ones), in an effort to avoid a lot of these hassles.
- The Pan American Hwy. crossings are the busiest and hardest to deal with. Also with all border crossings try to get there early like at 7 or 8 a.m. Many of these borders close at night and getting to them early in the day can be well worth it. You might avoid crowds and the heat and the bulk of the corrupt handlers. I had much better luck approaching these borders early in the day and on week days.
Remember, anyone who speaks Spanish well enough doesn't use them. And many who don't speak Spanish at all still suffer through not using them. It just takes a lot longer to get through with out them, but it can be done. As someone once put it, how much you end up spending at these crossings is directly related to how determined you are not to accept help.
If you're going to use them agree on a price before you start, $5 to $10 for someones help, especially if they can help you out of one country and into the next can be well worth it. Be clear about this; don't just accept someone's help without agreeing on a price, hopefully for both borders.
Paying some one to watch your bike is debatable, most times I don't think it's necessary, just carry your most valuable stuff with you, plus I found these guys didn't want to ruin their reputations by petty theft!
Most importantly don't just give your passport or paperwork to a handler with money and have them run off to take care of business. Go with them to every window, and give the money directly to the person at the window, this way they can't fabricate charges as easily and you will be dealing with the official firsthand, seeing how much is being given to them. This is where I lost a lot of money, by giving the handler money to go pay for something having no idea if they even went to any window or official at all. In fact don't give the handler any money unless you can see who they're giving it to. Pretty much the only money you should be giving them anyway is when everything is done and you're paying them for their service. They can show you what windows you need and act as an interpreter for you at the window, but that is all you really need them for, again paying them your agreed upon wage when you are all done.
On my way back when I could I chose young handlers, kids about 12 years old who were basically honest and not out to rip you off. These kids would often be run off by the older handlers later on in the day. I thought about just choosing the younger ones over the older ones but I was afraid the older ones would just take their money from them later on so I just used the older ones when they were both present. The older "seasoned" handlers are the ones that are the hardest to deal with, they don't take no for an answer and have the whole rip off system down to an art.
Don't flash much money, do your homework and know about what you should be paying for. But remember if you have to drive 20 miles back to town and take more money out of a bank to pay them, they have you. Refuse, say you only have so much money and if like I said if they still want more, just tell them and no and go back the way you came, either waiting for a different time to come back or going to border different crossing.
Remember these guys are the pros, this is what they do for a living day in and day out, they see thousands like us every year. If you're not prepared or have strategies for dealing with them the odds are in their favor for you spending more than you should. Be prepared, like I said, how much you spend is in direct proportion to how determined you are not to spend more than you should.
Your best bet is to go early in the day, avoid weekends, and use non Pan American Highway crossings. Learn as much Spanish as you can before you go. Also when you see a long line of trucks (sometimes a mile long) before the border, just drive right up to the front of them and start your business. If you're going to use a handler, choose one that hopefully speaks your language. As they flash their badges at you trying to woo you with their professionalism, know this is all part of their act. Most of them have no official role to play outside of sometimes being the lead man for some corrupt official behind them.
Even with all these warnings it is hard to imagine the chaos, the heat and the slickness of these characters trying to get your money until you've experienced it. The good news is it is all doable and you can reduce your risk of losing money by being prepared. The bad news is the crossings are unavoidable and have to be dealt with. They can be unpredictable, chaotic, hot, time consuming and totally frustrating, but I never felt physically threatened or in danger from all these characters. So be patient and guard your wallet at all times, the borders are not the only places where some people will try to get all they can from you...
8.31. Tuesday, Honduras. Corinto.
Much to my disappointment, all the research done on border crossing seems to be quite accurate when it comes to Honduras. Up to now all borders had been quick and quite pleasant affairs.
I'm writing this sitting down at a crappy 'comedor' (food shack) waiting to have some food and kill some time while 'the' customs agent finishes his lunch. When that'll be no one knows. Hopefully the sticky, odorous heat will do as much for his appetite as it's done for mine. Good thing tables don't require reservations around corinto.
To get into Mexico we crossed in Tecate to be welcomed by cheerful agents smiling waving us to keep going and to have fun while riding safe. It wasn't until we were all the way down on southern Baja that we had to stop for 15 minutes to process the necessary papers for the bikes. The customs office lies exactly at the border between northern and southern Baja, California.
We left Mexico via Chetumal and before leaving the Mexican side I had to 'arrange' for Pepe to get an exit stamp since he had overstayed the allotted 60 days. The deal was quick and at $25USD not too troublesome. Pleasantries and smiles were exchanged along with the pesos and permits.
Going into Belize we realized there are actually two steps to trying to enter a country with the bikes, and so far it seems Central American immigration posts don't feel it's necessary to clarify or facilitate the order of the needed steps. One, gotta get yourself checked in and get your passport stamped; Two, gotta get your bike checked in, passport stamped with bike details so you won't try to leave the country without it, and place a temporary vehicle import sticker on the bike's windshield. In Belize, a couple of agents played a nice volley with me sending me from side to side insisting I had to do the other procedure first. However, they were pleasant and even apologetic for the confusion.
Guatemala was a breeze both in and out, spending around 8UDS total. Trying to exit Guatemala through Puerto barrios took about 45 minutes while the agent radioed the office at our point of entry since the connection wasn't very clear, but he was again quite pleasant and his son was delighted to have his photo taken on top of my bike.
That again brings us to Corinto, Honduras where my wallet now feels as it's gone on an ultra rapid south beach diet, reaching half its usual travel weight and being the skinniest since it started crossing borders with me. 2USD to enter, 35USD for the bike and since the customs agents don't have the benefit of a typewriter in-house, I had to pay a customs broker to fill out the needed from and take two photocopies for another 15USD. Alas 50USD and three and a half hours later, I was clear, legal and on my way to Tegucigalpa to see dear friends.
From the Corinto border, on the north I made my way further up, to Omoa and then started coming down towards San Pedro Sula finally getting to the Yojoa lake district around 6:30pm, which was time to call it quits, get a motel and some rest before heading out towards the capital the morning after. Yojoa is a gorgeous lake. Definitely worth a visit. All along there seem to be little resorts and places to stay of varying degrees of luxury, from little haciendas to tiny cabanas.
August 2000 - by Erwin Thoma
Erwin travelled from March to August 2000 with a BMW R1100GS through Central America (from Mexico to Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and than to Columbia) without a Carnet de Passage. The bike was registered in Germany and he is a German citizen
2.60 US$ at the immigration
4.40 US$ at the custom
Sometimes you have to pay 2.2 US$ for disinfecting of the bike.
21 US$ at the custom (they charged me 11US$ extra for a form. I asked for a receipt and just got an arrogant smile as an answer. Finally the officer told me, that if I will not pay, I would not be allowed to pass the border - I paid) Leaving the country was 2 US$.
Road tax of 7 US$
Leaving the country was 2 US$, plus a regional fee of 1 US$.
10 US$ road tax for 1 month, 20 US$ for 2 months.
1 US$ at the immigration.
4 US$ at the customs.
Central America border crossings (with 4x4's)
"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 last Saturday. 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. After sizing up the line, we selected the most official looking helper who had a border ID. 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 another 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 scorching sun.
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). 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. 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. 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 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!
...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 processing 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 he couldn't. I intervened & at least got her to agree to take care of the rider 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 needed one 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.
In terms of insurance, 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 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 purchased 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.
A final note regarding these crossings-- 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 as 6.
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.
Regards, Steven Puig"
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