We heard the horror stories. Border crossings from hell, aggressive "helpers" swarming the car, threats of multiple corrupt police shake downs...it sounded bad. But like many overlanders before us, we would do the "3 countries 2 border crossings in 1 day" saga.
Back when we were planning this trip we decided we probably wouldn't be heading into Honduras. For a variety of reasons, I didn't have a burning desire to go. It does have one of the highest murder rates in all of Central America, but that wasn't the only reason. Working in the travel industry, nothing anyone had ever said about Honduras had compelled me to want to go. Sorry Honduras. We read about other overlanders who blew through this country and thought, yep, that's what we'll do. However, that required getting through 3 countries and 2 border crossings in one day to make it to León, Nicaragua before dark. We had to drive through countries that aren't exactly known for their warm and fuzzy borders. It loomed large for me as one the bigger hurdles we would encounter on this trip. The logistical procedures of getting our vehicle in and out of three countries in one day, the terrible roads, and reports of 14 police check points, not the danger, weighed on us as we prepped for the next day. Our border prep consisted of reading and rereading about 4 different blogs of people who had gone before us. Oh, and drinking beer. Border prep requires drinking beer, which we did at the Cadejo Brewery in San Salvador. We ended up using MyOverlandAdventure to get us through the day and printed out their step by step instructions.
Border prep at Cadejo Brewery in San Salvador. Craft beer helps the research process.
Bye, bye El Salvador.
We were on the road by 6 a.m. and hit the El Salvador/Honduras border by 7:00 am. We barely beat a long line of truckers and apparently most of the "helpers", which was good news. Helpers are basically aggressive touts who swarm your car the minute you get close to the border, offering (sometimes demanding) to "help" you with the various steps needed to get through the convoluted process. Sometimes they are kids, always male. We have encountered them at other border crossings but they seem to be getting more aggressive the farther south we get. We had a few chase our rig and pound on the windows but a few firm, "No gracias", and "No nececito su ayuda" (we don't need your help) got rid of most of them. The others we just ignored. We got out of El Salvador fairly quickly - stops at immigration, customs, and then we canceled our vehicle permit. The vehicle permit has to be canceled out of the departing country and a new one obtained in the entering country. Sometimes they cost money, sometimes they don't. Sometimes they look in the rig, sometimes they don't. You just never know. El Salvador also does not require a single passport stamp, coming or going for that country. Strange.
We got out of El Salvador and drove to the Honduran border where the real fun started.
Entering Honduras. LoJo on the right behind the tuk tuk.
We worked through the maze of stamps, forms, and copies (so many copies (!) made across the street & around a corner in a dark, tiny store the size of a closet), paid fees for who know what, and then we were free in just under and hour and a half. Once we were on our way again in Honduras the countryside changed from the lush green jungle foliage of El Salvador to a more arid, open landscape with rolling hills. In just over 2 hours of driving we shared the road with horse carts, ox carts, men on bicycles loaded with firewood, and children in school uniforms to reach the other end of the country. We were not stopped by police, or hassled in any way. The only stop we made was for gas where we let two adorable little kids gleefully climb up onto the truck to clean our windowshield. The roads were in fact horrendous - so bad that every couple of miles we would see a local man or boy filling the holes with a bucket of sand and ask for money. To call them pot holes was generous. They were more like sink holes, requiring not buckets but dump trucks to fill. John did his best bob and weave driving to avoid total devastation of our axels. Yet everyone was friendly, and lots of people waved to us as we drove by. We felt perfectly safe in our all of 2 hours in the country. We have no idea if it was good timing or just plain luck, but we experienced none of the hassles other travelers have reported. We slipped through without incident. I felt a little bad about blowing off Honduras so easily.
Next round: Immigration and Customs . And not busy!
Leaving the border entering into Honduras
Our only stop in Honduras
We hit the Honduran/Nicaraguan border around 11:30 a.m. Once through the Honduran side (more stamps, more copies, canceled vehicle permit) we drove through an entire town that existed in the no man's land in between the two countries. It was really sketchy and strange, and we didn't know what country these people belonged to but we moved along quickly.
Finally we made it to the Nicaraguan side. We knew that Nicaragua fumigated all entering vehicles but they tried to fumigate inside the rig, and we said no. I mean, the guy has a gas mask on as he is trying to convince us. They insisted even more, and we threw a fit. Ok, I threw a fit. No way were they going pump poison inside LoJo. We said in garbled Spanglish that I was on medication and I wouldn't be able to breathe if they sprayed inside. One guy kept saying how about just a little bit (seriously?), and the other guy told us we would have to turn around an go back to Honduras. Seeing that my only alternative was to become slightly hysterical, I turned up the shrill in my voice and was poised to cry on command. It was a fine act, if I do say so myself. Finally, the mean guy walked off and said just go pay. So John got out, paid the $3 fumigation fee and we got our certificate (that we later realized no one ever even asked to see). We were free to move on to the next round. We did a little fist pump in the cab - another instance of "just wear them down" working in our favor.
Next we drove over to the immigration and customs building which hadn't been touched since the Sandinista era (the first one), with water stained ceilings and rusted fans blowing hot air across truckers sleeping on benches waiting for their paperwork. We knew from our checklist we needed a medical clearance but for us that required stepping into a trailer a few yards away where a nurse just handed us two little slips of paper and waved us out again.
Parked (for quite a while) at Immigration and Customs in Nicaragua.
As we entered the customs building, we read the signs trying to figure out which one to stand in and between the heat, the mounds of paperwork, all the steps we had already taken, we literally had to ask each other, "are we entering or exiting this country?"
The long lines and heat left everybody exhausted.
Passports stamped, we were cleared to moved on to the next round to get our vehicle permit (treating this all like an episode of Amazing Race helps with the insanity). The height of the windows required us to bend at the hip, put our ear to the hole in the glass, straining to understand the questions being hurled at lightening speed spanish...the only saving grace was the cool that air that blew back at us. Finally, with permit in hand, we walked out of the building and sat down at a desk to buy the $12 of insurance that will allegedly protect us for the month or more we are in Nicaragua.
Buying insurance. Very official. One of the "helpers" kept hanging around me...would not take no for an answer.
Back in the truck cab where we cranked on the air conditioning, we knew we were close to the end. Two more check points that each required all the same documents just one more time....and we were free. We hit the city of León around 3:30 and found a hotel in one try that could watch over LoJo. Then we had a couple of cold Nicaraguan Toña beers to celebrate (successful border crossings require beer, too).
It was a big day to get through and I think we got pretty lucky, but getting this particular day behind us solidified for me that this is all pretty doable...this driving to Argentina. It's just a long ass road trip like any other.