Border crossings have become drastically more tedious and convoluted. As of today we have crossed seven international borders. The El Amatillo crossing from El Salvador to Honduras being the worst of the list. The constant trucking back and forth from police stations to copy stands, Immigration to Customs and back to copy stands gets a little tiring, especially while being berated by guides, pan handlers and money changers.
It’s the motorcycle that complicates things. We have to import and export the motorcycle at customs in Each country. The basics of crossing a border with a motorcycle in Central America looks like this:
- Police stand checks your paperwork just before border services
- Locate the immigration office for the country you’re exiting
- Get your passport stamped
- Locate the customs office for the country you’re exiting
- Cancel your import permit for the motorcycle
- Have bike inspected for matching VIN / Engine numbers
- Make copies of all paperwork
- Take copies of your export paperwork back to the police stand in step 1
- Drive from the Immigration / Customs offices of the country you’re leaving to Immigration / Customs office of the country you’re entering
- You may or may not have to fumigate your vehicle at this point
- Policeman checks your paperwork
- Locate the Immigration office for the country you’re entering
- Get your passport stamped
- Get your bags inspected
- Locate the customs office for the country you’re entering
- Apply for a temporary vehicle import
- Make 3-5 trips to the copy stand
- Buy a super cheap bottle of rum at the duty free – you’re going to need it
- Double check to make sure that you still have all the originals of your paperwork and extra copies of your paperwork
- Buy insurance if necessary
- Drive to the last police stand and have a final review of your paperwork before entering country
The fun part is that all of these tasks take place in anywhere from 2-7 different buildings and or offices. More often than not there is no clear marking on the buildings. Everything takes place in Spanish.
You can easily see how English speaking “border guides” make a living helping foreigners navigate the maze of paperwork required to move a vehicle between countries in Central America.
Typically, they work for tips, but it is clear that they have other arrangements with the customs and immigration officials. In addition to their tips they show you how to ‘bribe’ the necessary officials to help expedite the process. I assume bribes and tips are pooled a the end of the day.
The guides appoint themselves. Our first experience with this was at El Amatillo on the El Salvador / Honduras border. This is also our first experience with blatant attempts to extort bribes by border officials.
I walk up to the Customs window of the country I’m entering (Honduras) to import the motorcycle. I’m the only one in the building less my guide. The official gets up, walks out of the office and into the main hall where I’m standing. He rubs his belly while making the “give me money” sign with his other hand and declares it lunch time for the next hour. I give him the I’ll sit here for an hour on principle look and he walks away. 10 minutes later he returns joking, kind and more than willing to get my paperwork done.
This being the most difficult of our crossings the guide probably saved us more time than he costs us. He hooved it from building to building getting together the 14 copies of various paperwork we needed to complete the process. In the end I tipped him $5 for his troubles, which seemed to make him happy enough. I didn’t have to pay any bribes and that makes me happy.
When we approached the Honduras / Nicaragua border at San Marco de Colon today a similar situation unfolded. Tony appointed himself as our guide and we started the process. By the second step, exporting the motorcycle from Honduras, Tony asked me for 100 Limperes. Why I asked? “Because there is a lot of people and we can be first.” Negative, I know I don’t have to wait in line behind all the commercial truckers sitting in the waiting room. I snatched all of our paperwork out of Tony’s hand and took over the process.
He continued to follow us around while I went to make the copies and talk to the officials myself. Finally he tried to grab a piece of paperwork from me and I told him. You know what Tony, I don’t trust you anymore. You just tried to get me to pay 100 Limperes to expedite something that took 1o minutes. Fired.
It probably costs a half hour in the end, but I didn’t have to bribe anyone to get it done. And we got to be the gringos who could find their way through the system without the help of a guide. So cheers to that.
A note on Bribes. While my principles may seem infallible from this article I assure they are not. I have paid bribes while traveling overseas and I’m sure I will again. Here’s my line.
I will generally refuse to pay a bribe to get someone to do their job. If you want to go to lunch, go to lunch. I’ll be here when you get back. I’ll sit here all day if I have to.
I will pay a bribe to get someone to get me out of a bind when they don’t have to. You can only stay five months per year in Nepal. I had stayed my five months, went to Tibet and then back to the Nepal border over land knowing that I had stayed the maximum number of days for the year. I also knew that officials could issue a gratis visa at their discretion. It saved me a good bit of money to go back to Nepal first. When I arrived at the border I was perfectly aware of my situation. I handed my passport across the counter with a handsome bribe inside. A gratis visa was issued and no questions were ever asked.
I will pay a bribe when I have obviously and knowingly broken a law in country. Enough said about that.
Or if I am taking my girl to the Sketchy Circus.