The border to Honduras sucks. It looks like a war zone. Dilapidated buildings and garbage strewn everywhere. Mangy border dogs so skinny and lethargic, eating garbage. Little red tuk-tuks are swerving this way and that, honking horns and zizzing by. A slew of sketchy characters in tattered clothing immediately come running up to the car on both sides before we even realize that we’re actually at the border. One guy is slurring. One has crossed eyes. They’re all yelling over one another, vying for our attention, wanting to be the lucky one that gets to ‘help’ us cross the border, banging on the roof, demanding attention. It’s a panic. We’re instantly in fucking annoyed mode. I can see MacKay’s blood pressure cooking his earlobes. He turns to me with the wide eyed “can you fucking believe this bullshit” expression painted on already.
One dude in a blue polo shirt has a lanyard and some sort of badge. He’s actually kind of calm and speaks decent English. The badge is a ploy of course, just to get you interested. To make it seem like he’s a legit border employee. He’s not. “You need to park here.” He points at some nondescript building. “Cancel vehicle permit first, I’ll show you.” But he was patient, and he actually was helpful.
MacKay hops out with all the car paperwork and I stay in the drivers seat. In my rearview I watch James bounce between several buildings, confused as hell. A handful of ‘helpers’ tagging along, pulling at his papers, nagging, nipping away his patience. So there is a shoddy white shack where you have to cancel your vehicle permit. But the guy keeps the original and you need to show a stamped copy to immigration later. So James has to cross the road and make a copy in another building, take it back to the guy, who then stamps the copy, then he has to go back to the shop with the copier to make 3 more copies of the now stamped paper to give to the Honduran immigration dude later. We’re getting these directions from Mr Blue Polo in broken English. Apparently we’ll also need 3 copies of the vehicle registration, MacKay’s license and his passport. Why they need 3 copies of everything i don’t know.
After criss-crossing the road getting the vehicle permit cancelled, copied, stamped and copied again, I mention that James should probably drive across since his name’s on all the car documents. He jumps in and Mr Blue hands him his seat belt. “Always, don’t get fined”. He jumps a tuk-tuk beside us with some reeeeally sketchy looking guy in a pink shirt. We’re supposed to follow them.
We drive a little ways down the road. Blue and Pink stop to talk to someone and we pass them.There are multiple ways to go and absolutely no signs. We go the wrong way. Spin around. Mr Pink hops out of the tuk-tuk as we pass going the opposite direction and comes to the car window. His expression states that he’s amazed at how dumb we are. He mutters and points and gets back in the tuk-tuk and leads us away.
We come to the El Salvador immigration building, park, and wait in line to have our passports looked over. The border dude takes our passports and slides them and does computer stuff. They don’t stamp the passports. Didn’t on the way in either. Kinda sucks. They stamp some card instead and slip it in your passport. Then he writes the number 2 on a white slip of some sort and hands it to me. Blue explains it’s for the bridge guard. We hop back in El-BP. Kind of annoying but things are going somewhat quickly.
A little ways down the road we come to a bridge. A couple of machine gun military guards stop us and want to see James’ passport, title, registration, and license. They don’t ask about the little white slip. While they’re looking things over some filthy dirty kid comes up to my window and begs for a dollar. “Nope”. “One dollar”. “Lo siento”. “One dollar”. The kid nods his head towards an old man standing behind him, wearing basically rags, hunched over slightly, can barely move. I look at the old man. He has no eyes. No Eyes. Just holes. So fucking creepy. “One dollar”. “So I’m supposed to give you a dollar because that old man has no eyes?”. “One dollar”. “MacKay, I’m gonna freak out, man”. “I know dude, this is fucked”. We get the passport back, army guy keeps the copies, and we get waved through.
We pull into an open area with several buildings. No obvious markings. No way of actually knowing what the hell we’re suppose to do. As we scan for clues Mr Blue and Mr Pink are there waving to us from their tuk-tuk. They point, we park. Next up is a wave of money changers rushing us with their man bags all of them harassing us to change dollars to Hondubucks. Saying no to one does not mean the other 9 thousand aren’t also going to ask you. Repeatedly. So much touching. So much uncomfortable touchy nagging hell from all directions. Did I mention it is exactly one million degrees Celsius?
Pink leads us into the courtyard of some cement building and takes us up to a counter. Really wish Blue would come. Way better English. Way less sketchy feeling. There’s another guy with Pink now, he’s wearing a white shirt. We give Honduran border guy our passports. He looks them over. He needs copies of everything. We got em. Pa-zow! Meanwhile a really sketchy-looking one-legged guy has crept up behind us in the line, looking like he’s trying to nab something. At least he can’t make a quick getaway. Ok, the border guy needs something else. We don’t got that. Pink leads us back out. Over to another building. Ahhh immigration. They need us to fill out some customs forms. When they pass us the forms a bunch of kids run up to give us pens, nagging, touching, jamming them right in our hands and closing our fingers around them. Of course we’re expected to pay for this wonderful service. We fill out the forms. They fill out some tourist cards for us. $3 each for the cards.
We take the cards and forms back to the first building. Nope. They need copies. More fucking copies. Pink takes us to the copy shop. He literally takes our pages. All of our documents. MacKay and I have no idea what is happening or what they actually need. Pink makes sure Copy Guy makes 3 copies of the immigration forms, tourist cards, and receipts.
Back to the Border Guy with our ridiculous stack of copies. He takes them all. Let’s us keep some. Doesn’t really explain anything. He asks for an import fee and gives us a receipt. He tells us that’s it. We may get searched. Don’t pay for anything after this. Again. You don’t need to pay for the search. You’re done.
Well not quite. Mr White tells us we need copies of the receipt we just got. Back to the fucking copy shop.
We get back in EL-BP and leave the immigration plaza. There are a line of tuk-tuks and a line of busted up vendor shacks selling all sorts of trinkets and things as the wind shakes them apart. A kid is standing on the roof of one hammering cardboard onto the roof and wrapping that in garbage bags for some weatherproofing. The wind whips up and rips some cardboard out of his hand as we drive past.
We come to a long line of transport trucks and a fork in the road. Mr White pulls up beside us in his tuk-tuk with Pink. He points to a Police truck full of Honduran police. “I just got call from Police. $20 and no search. You just go.” Ahhhhhhh sure. James and I don’t know if this is true or what. “I called ahead too. No search.” Ok whatever, these guys have actually been pretty helpful leading us around Borderland, feeding us directions and making copies. We give White a 20. Pink wants something for his contribution too. We give him about 2 dollars worth of Hondubucks. He’s disappointed. We drive off.
No search. Look at that.
And we’re in Honduras. And the road has potholes the size of Pluto. And we’re at a police check point already. Passports. No Search. Back on the road. We start to defrag from the whole border fiasco. Not too bad though. Only about an hour and a half. But still we have that feeling like we’re on the run. It’s all in our heads of course. You just hear so many things about a place. Violence. Corruption. Crime. And you don’t really know what to expect. It felt like we were doing something wrong the whole time. We pass by a billboard for Hotel Jonathan. Weird.
The drive across Honduras took about 2 hours. Some sections were pretty good, others full of potholes. Kids stand in the center of the road near bad sections of potholes. They’ll hold a shovel or something. Enterprising freelance construction workers. For sure. They hold up 2 fingers and try to get 2 bucks off of you as you pass by, leaning way into the car so you basically have to swerve to avoid them.
Here’s the only picture I took of Honduras. Pretty incredible.
Everything we’d read about driving in Honduras had prepared us to be ready for multiple police and military checkpoints expecting bribes. A lot of people have reported being stopped five to ten times on the PanAm highway alone – our route, and one that’s only supposed to take two hours. We broke our wads of cash up into numerous mini-stashes in case the cost of the “fines” happen to exactly match the amount of money in our hands.
The first few stops were surprisingly inconsequential though, with a brief “Buenas tardes” and a hand wave indicating that we keep on rolling. Across five checkpoints we were only really stopped once, roughly three-quarters of the way through the country, by a bored-looking baby-faced cop. A lot of quick Spanish and a hand gesture indicating that we get off the road for inspection while other vehicles blaze past. We get the standard stuff – license please, where are you coming from, where are you going, how long will you be in the country – and then the question we’d been waiting for since we left Mexico, whether we have two hi-viz warning triangles and a fire extinguisher in the car. We’d bought these at an Autozone immediately before leaving Mexico because it really is a legit law in all Central American countries to have these handy, and it’s a law that is often used to extract money from gringos. He seemed disappointed that we were in compliance and regretfully returned my license and let us go.
The Honduran-Nicaraguan border seemed less chaotic than the previous crossing but the bar had been set really low. We were immediately approach by several people wanting to “help” us and change money for us but they were slightly less aggressive than those we’d met previously as they waited for our car to slow down and didn’t just run headlong into the grille whistling and waving. Creeping through the obligatory gauntlet of parked semis we saw a single building that looked official while several “helpers” waved and pointed for us to pull in. Two were at the driver’s side window before I’d even put on the hand brake. Any semblance of patience or politeness have evaporated at this point, get the fuck out of my face, I need nothing. Amazingly they pretty much leave us alone after that. It’s also apparent how many of our North American driving habits we’ve discarded, mangled on the side of a carretera somewhere when I look back at my parking job. Ten parking spots, two handicapped spots and then a no-parking zone. We’d gone native, deliberately parking in the last of the three.
Inside the compound were several glassed-in booths with signs indicating their purposes but with no one inside. One guy who seems suspiciously helpful tells us they’re at lunch and we just have to wait. A small trickle of people were going inside an air-conditioned office next door so we did the same, even if just to get out of the sweltering humidity of the rest of the compound. Oh, this is immigration. They take care of our paperwork in about two minutes. This whole situation is triply-miraculous – not only was shit getting done at lunch, and in a very short time, but the immigration officials and customs officials were in the same location. We re-enter the customs scrum with assurances from truckers that the wheels will start grinding again at one o’clock.
At about five minutes to one, one of the truckers – who’d been genuinely helpful, so we’re trusting him – takes us around the corner pointing to his watch. One of the booths had opened a couple of minutes early and he indicates we should get in line. Meanwhile another guy (with a badge to make himself look official) starts muscling in and trying to take papers from my hands to shove them through the window. Best case scenario he helps us cut in line, worst case scenario he tries to bail with my papers or demands money for them and we smoke him, so we take a gamble and he gets them up through the window. Five minutes later we’ve got our papers and we’re headed for Nicaragua.
The first step to entering Nicaragua is getting the car fumigated. A line-up of trucks is ahead of us getting sprayed by a guy with a backpack and a chemical hose when several kids run up to our car to offer their support as mini-helpers. Sorry, we have to roll up the windows for fumigating, hahah. We jump out to pay the small fee for fumigation and get a certificate with the kids nipping at our heels. “No necesito ayuda! No necesito ayuda!” One kid in particular hangs in there, just grinning as we say we don’t need help. He runs off but not back toward the border, rather behind a line-up of trucks and booking it in the same direction we’re driving. We don’t see anything that looks like immigration or customs until we hear a whistle, the kid’s standing off to our left through a gap in the trucks and pointing to a building with line-ups of people visible. That’s it. Dammit, the kid was actually helpful. Toss him a dollar for his trouble thinking he’ll split – nope, he’s tagging along with us now, running forward to show us exactly where to go and practicing his English by reading the print on Murphy’s Austin City Limits Music Festival shirt. Another small miracle here – immigration, customs and insurance (mandatory in Nicaragua) are all in the same building.
Immigration is a breeze, taking only a couple minutes and costing about $24. Customs was a bit longer but not terrible in comparison to some of the crossings we’ve done previously. A half hour line-up then about twenty minutes waiting for a single bureaucrat. The biggest difficulty was trying to understand her questions – she was behind plastic, speaking extraordinarily fast, and there was a TV directly to our right showing the MLB playoffs with the volume jacked. Fortunately our little helper was approximately at ear & eye level with the hole in the plastic so our bureaucrat began directing questions to him rather than us. She once got him to run out to the car, grab the license plate number, then run back and report.
The current Nicaraguan government is socialist, apparently in a large part made up of former Sandanistas. I’ve heard some criticisms of the way they do things, particularly their less-than-complete devotion to democracy, and some of this was apparent in our first government building. On the walls above the customs booths were alternating Nicaraguan flags and flags of the FSLN (the ruling party). That sort of practice would be totally normal in a place like China or a Central Asian “Stan” but is pretty sketchy for a supposed democracy.
After wrapping up the import process and buying some insurance we hit the road, giving our helper a fistful of Hondurobucks. He seemed totally pleased with the equivalent of about 3.50 USD. Another kid we’d never seen insisted he also helped and chased us around, demanding money. Getting in the car he dragged his face along the driver’s side window insisting we ripped him off. Sorry kid, take a lesson from your buddy and step up your game. And get out of the way or I’ll clip you with my side mirror.
We hit one last checkpoint before we’re clear, a couple of police come out and want to check our docs to make sure we didn’t just blow past customs and insurance, which would’ve been very easy. One of the cops asks me to get out and pop the hatch so he can perform an inspection, but since the car’s hot the hatch won’t open. I swear and bang it a few times and he just shrugs and indicates he doesn’t care, waving us through.
Boom! We’re in Nicaragua.