The Journal  

29 December 2005

El Salvador

Author: Jeremiah

Photographer: Holly


Border Lessons: El Salvador , Honduras and Nicaragua

December 12

The cost of spending two hours in (traveling 75 miles through) Honduras

Vehicle importation tax: $50

“Fee” to man at bank so we can butt in front of 75 people at the bank to pay tax: $5

Road tax: $50

“Fee” to official to process our road tax faster: $5

Border pigs tips: $40

Learning that you're better off crossing borders on your own: priceless.

We were happy to be leaving San Miguel early the next morning, heading to Honduras . Despite the stories about problems at the border, we hadn't had any at the four we had crossed. That all changed at the Honduran border. Once again we were approached by border pigs, whose help we tried to refuse. One pair, two brothers, weren't easily dissuaded, so we negotiated a fee. We quickly found that crossing into Honduras with a vehicle is a convoluted process of paying fees, getting stamps and signatures, and waiting in small, hot offices, that smell like sweat, to get approval from an official who charges you a five dollar “fee” for his services and then puts the money into his pocket. The whole process took about two hours and cost about $200, our slowest and most expensive crossing so far. It would have taken at least two more if we had tried to do it ourselves, not knowing who to pay for “rapido” service. When I went to pay our helper the $20 fee we had agreed on, he explained that he costs $20 per border. And we still had another border to cross before our day was finished.

  Jeremiah gets instructions from border pig, Roberto, on the Honduran crossing.

We had planned to visit a friend of a friend in Honduras , but were unable to get in touch. The Pan-American Highway spends only 75 miles in Honduras , so we drove straight through in less than two hours, the beautiful green mountains and empty country side passing in a blur.

So far we hadn't had any problems with the police, driving through check points without being stopped, but in Honduras we were stopped three times to check our papers, before being sent on our way.

At the Honduras/Nicaragua border, again we were swarmed by border pigs. Thinking I was smart, I negotiated a fee of $5 with one for both crossings. The guys we hired were extra helpful, offering to take our papers to the offices while we sat with the bike. They would tell us the fees, we would hand over the cash and they would disappear, returning moments later with our stamped papers

But as our helpers rushed around to get us through “mas rapido,” the fees they said we needed to pay started to become confusing. I was tired, hot and focused on getting to our destination before dark. An observant Holly commented, “Why do we have to wait here when the offices are right over there?” Our helper's amigos urged us to stay with the bike. Then our pig handed me a receipt from the Salvadoran border and said that we would have to repay it.

Suspect, I consulted with each country's officials. It costs $3 a piece to leave Honduras and nothing to enter Nicaragua . As I talked to the officials in Nicaragua , our helper slipped back across the border in a pedal taxi. Leaving Holly in Nicaragua , I rode back into Honduras and confronted our group of helpers, threatening to involve the policia, even though I'm sure they would simply laugh at my stupidity. The pig offered me a $20 bill, but I channeled all of my self-loathing at almost being taken like a stupid American tourist to demand the rest. They begrudgingly refunded the $100 they were extorting from us, hoping it would get the crazy American to leave their country. Not satisfied, I devoted the next ten minutes to a little negative advertising, standing in front of the Honduran immigration office and warning other travelers not to use our helper's services. Eventually, they became angry and left. I crossed back into Nicaragua and picked up Holly. We left with another road lesson under our belt. You can save money, improve your Spanish and avoid contributing to government corruption in Central American countries by crossing borders on your own.

  Border pigs at the Honduras/Nicaraguan border direct us to a parking space.

At both borders we see other gringo riders, whose bikes have either Guatemalan or El Salvadoran plates, probably people who flew into those countries for a week long adventure tour. We passed one group of riders on brand new BMWs and Goldwings with El Salvadorian plates.

  We passed this rider on a brand new BMW R1200GS, one of the few cyclists we've seen wearing full riding gear.

  This group of BMWs and Goldwings had El Salvadoran plates and a support vehicle, indications that they were part of an organized motorcycle “adventure tour.”

Once in Nicaragua , we took Central America 3 southeast, looping around the Momotombo Volcano, before arriving in León, our destination for the day. In the past 36 hours, we had been in four countries and crossed three borders.

  The Momotombo Volcano spouts out smoke in Nicaragua.

All photographs © Holly Marcus / Page design by Robin Marcus