(this post is a little longer than most – just in case you want to make a coffee before reading it)
It is well known amongst overland travellers with vehicles that Central American border crossings are a challenge. There are no end of articles all over the internet attesting to the madness of it all and the problems caused by bureaucracy and disorganisation at the borders. Forewarned and forearmed with this knowledge it was with some trepidation that we set out to cross these same borders on Bertie the BMW. Would the stories be true we wondered. After all, a feature of this trip has been the doom mongerers and naysayers telling us we would be mugged, robbed, raped and generally have a really bad day everywhere we went; and that has not happened. Ergo these borders will be OK won’t they?
Sadly the information has proven to be bang on; if anything, understated! Central American borders are a headache (I’m trying hard to be polite here). You roll up to the border to be greeted by a chaotic scene with people milling everywhere and vehicles, especially lorries, parked all over the place. First up was Panama into Costa Rica. We chose the northern crossing at Sixaola (should be quieter) and rolled up and found no sign or indication of where the border actually was. Flipping heck, how hard can it be to find an international border. A few hand signals from locals and a sharp right turn almost back on ourselves, down a shabby street past some shops and there is was, a Portacabin next to a dilapidated bridge over a river with two locals having a pee down the side of it. The moment you arrive the ‘tramitadores’ are all over you offering to guide you through for a few dollars; we opted to do it ourselves on this occasion and after a couple of hours in the mid 30 degrees C heat, we succeeded. Stamp yourselves out of the country, then ‘export’ your bike. Then stamp yourselves into Costa Rica
and then import your bike. Importing the bike takes the longest. Photocopies are required of your passport, ownership doc, insurance, and there’s plenty of little ‘photocopia’ booths to do it. Photocopying paperwork is a national industry in all CA countries it seems. Doing this in bike gear, in hot humid conditions, whilst trying to watch the bike and your belongings and dealing with the attention of tramitadores fighting for your custom and beggars likewise, is a hot sticky unpleasant business. We always try to give some money to the beggars as these people are in genuine need, it is not a con, no social safety net in these countries. Also, invariably you end up with some local currency left over which you can easily give away. Jenny is a sucker for giving dosh to the kids aswell bless her!
Before we knew it we were tackling Costa Rica into Nicaragua aiming to meet up with some Italian friends and a Chilean in Granada. As we approached there was a 3 km tailback of lorries to go round. And we thought we had a hard time of it! This border was truly a CA border.
Chaos everywhere and no signage to tell you where to start and where to go next. First up a lady under an awning had to point a ‘gun’ at me that measured my body temperature (I think) to see if I was feverish (I wasn’t yet – that came later) then she didn’t bother doing Jenny so obviously ladies are exempt illness and contagious disease. Then there was the bike fumigation area which I just ignored and drove round – our Italian friends we heard later did go through it and paid but nobody ever asked us for a certificate of fumigation. Next an exit tax, 9000 Colones, photocopies 400 Colones, 3rd party insurance US$17 (by the way, our Italian friends only paid US$12 on the same day, go figure!), entry tax Nicaragua US$24. None of it a lot of money but all seemed pretty pointless especially the ‘insurance’ which we suspect would be worth little in action. On the Nicaraguan side it was even more confused. At one point I had to get a stamp from a policeman who was totally engrossed chatting up a young lady and having a laugh with her – it took a full 5 minutes to get him off her so he would stamp our papers. There followed an inspection by a Customs officer. An eldery chap who was entirely on his own, checking all the bags of all the passengers of the coaches turning up – honestly it was absolute chaos! Eventually he came across to do our bike and about 3 cars that were waiting. I thought please please don’t make us unpack the bike for a full search. As he approached Jenny through her arms wide and shouted ‘Taadaaa! Mi Casa’ pointing at the bike with a big smile for him.
He was so impressed (or scared of her?) he just stamped our papers with no search (well done honey). The magic words ‘Todo fin’ all finished, were finally uttered after about 2.5 hours and we were glad to head off to Granada to meet our friends and quaff some well earned beers.
Then there was Nicaragua into Honduras, Honduras into El Salvador, El Salvador into Guatemala, Guatemala into Mexico – where we are now. By now we were travelling with our good friends Max and Mir from Italy who are on a 6 month trip of S. America, C.America and N. America.
Crossing borders together made it better for Jenny who had some company
whilst stood around with the bike (s) and Max and I used the ‘tramitodores’ who in most cases made things easier for US$5 or thereabouts; worth doing at some borders. The exception was going into Mexico. On the Mexican side you DO NOT need a tramitodore and indeed they are illegal. We didn’t know this and used one. This scoundrel charged us a few dollars for something we could easily do ourselves and then almost convinced us we could enter Mexico and head off without doing the US$400 surety for the bikes. I didn’t believe him and went in search of further information. Just as well because if we had entered without it at the first checkpoint or even worse at the border into USA we would have been turned back to our point of entry to go and do it!! Mexico has a system where to bring a vehicle in there is a charge based on a set scale which you pay by credit card. Then when you leave and take the vehicle out of Mexico you get the money back (we hope). Our guide book, Max and Mir’s info from the Italian equivalent of the FCO both said you only have to give them credit card details not actually pay. Definitely wrong with a capital W. If you are coming into Mexico across a land border with a vehicle make sure you have a credit card good for at least US$400 or you ain’t coming in. (oh I almost forgot, US$59 admin charge and Mexican Pesos 332 if you want a visa for more than 7 days). Finally, just a note on that 3rd party insurance: obligatory in each country except El Salvador and Mexico where it is up to you – we didn’t bother.
So in a nutshell, albeit a big one, that is our abbreviated story of the insanity of Central American borders. If anyone reading this is going to do this trip be reassured that you will get through and you will survive. It isn’t a great experience and a few dollars here and a few dollars there starts to add up but all in all, it’s not that expensive and it’s just the hassle you have to put up with to ride through.
Next up the USA. The land of the free etc. Everyone tells us we WON’T be mugged, robbed and raped, we’ll just be eaten by bears in Canada – bring it on!
More photos after this short message !!
PLEASE DON’T FORGET WE’RE ALSO TRYING TO RAISE MONEY FOR SHELTERBOX ON THIS TRIP – AN AMAZING CHARITY. JUST CLICK AND MAKE A REAL DIFFERENCE TO PEOPLES LIVES. A DOLLAR OR FIVE, EVERY LITTLE HELPS SO SKIP THE EXPENSIVE COFFEE JUST ONCE AND DONATE – THANK YOU. https://www.justgiving.com/James-Mitchell15/