Border Hassle and good times in Nicaragua

Nicaragua (San Juan Del Sur) I’ve now resigned myself to the fact that border crossings are the part of this trip I dislike most. It’s an experience I dread, as I never know if it will be easy or difficult. While driving to Nicaragua I had to pass through Honduras. The former country was the easiest crossing so far while the latter was horrific.

But firstly, I don’t count the El Salvador crossing as a bad experience, while it took longer than expected it was my own fault for not having a licence plate. Otherwise it would have been plain sailing. The general routine when crossing borders is to correctly exit one country before entering the next. Where the process on exiting usually involves a tourist visa stamp, a customs declaration and occasionally a police stamp too. If not correctly in place, the new country can refuse entry and that’s before you even get to jump through their loops.

I should also point out that there is no one –stop shop for all of the above. You end up dealing with agents from the Ministry of Tourism, Finance (Customs) and the Police department. It wouldn’t be so bad if there were a logical flow to the departments but more specifically the buildings to visit. As sometimes they are in random order. On top this, currency also has to be taken into account.

Some borders take cash for their fees while others require a payment receipt from a bank, which is usually within a couple of hundred metres. But another queue nonetheless. Some take dollars while others take local currency only, which is not always easy to get until you are in the country. If I cannot arrange currency from a bank, I then exchange USD50-70 with an on street vendor. They do charge extra but on the whole it’s not excessive. Of course, not one border I’ve crossed takes credit card and worse I haven’t seen an ATM in the vicinity that takes foreign debit cards either.

With all of this to look forward to it’s hardly surprising that as the border approaches I usually get a sinking feeling in my stomach. If all goes well the entire exit and entry requirements should take 1.5-2.0 hours; assuming I manage to avoid lunchtime breaks. I left El Salvador easily but it all went pear shaped when I crossed the bridge into Honduras.

A guard with his officious white shirt and a shinny badge wouldn’t even let me into the compound as my Dutch bike papers only had my family name and not my full name as per my passport. He didn’t even try to listen to my explanation and the bastard was both rude and dismissive. A tactic I later guessed he employed on purpose. At this point I knew he was after a bribe. In the end I had to use one of the local facilitators to help arrange the paperwork. It cost me USD15 in bribe money before I was even allowed into the compound.

Later on I had to pay another bribe of USD10 to his boss, who along with my facilitator both went down a side street where no doubt the exchange took place. I’ll never know if the local guide skimmed off some cash before handing it over to the corrupt officials. For me its irrelevant since it all left my wallet anyway. Now the official process could begin.

Which in itself was time consuming and the most expensive of all the countries visited thus far. Between Honduras and Nicaragua there is only one border crossing which is blantantly used as a tax revenue generator. My tourist visa cost USD10 and my bike cost USD50 for which I got official receipts. Quite expensive considering I was travelling less than 200km through the country.

At this point I ran out of cash while still having to pay the municipal tax and my facilitator. With no ATM’s at the border area I had to take a taxi back to a town 15km on the El Salvador side. I couldn’t take the bike as I would have had to re-enter and exit El Salvador only to come back to Honduras. So I took my valuables, left my bags on the bike which I locked. Fortunately the facilitator seemed honest enough, even if not entirely effective. As he kept an eye on my bike I took a cab that cost another USD20.

His fee was USD25 which was overpriced as he let me leave without a tourist stamp on my passport (despite paying for it). In addition, he nearly delayed the customs procedure. I had to intervene in SpanEnglish to explain again why my Dutch bike ownership papers only had my family name. I must remember to write a note to the Dutch authorities to the correct this procedure. Sure I will…..

Anyway, the last hurdle to jump was the requirement to add reflective strips to the bike. It’s a legal requirement that vehicles have high visibility strips and carry a reflective triangle in case of a break down. My guide told me the police have checkpoints outside the border and can prohibit a journey unless some dinero is forthcoming. I bought the strips for USD10 but couldn’t get a triangle. I left the border area seething, both annoyed and drained by the loss of time and expense.

The total cost was USD155. In addition, I had to deal with all of this in 32+ degree heat. As I hit the road again I knew I’d never make Nicaragua before dark but I pushed on anyway. About 70km later, as dusk began to fall at 5.30pm I passed a pretty nice hotel and decided to check it out. The hotel turned about to be very nice and reasonably priced. I though it better for my health and safety to stop over, calm down, swim in the pool and have a dirty big steak, washed down of course with a bottle of red.

I had the steak in a simple bar-restaurant opposite the hotel. There were no walls but the tables were covered by a thatched apex roof. The owner, Jose, invited me to join him at the bar. Interestingly he worked half the year on cruise ships as an AB (Able-bodied Seaman) and the reminder in his restaurant. Good to see that his first world wages allowed him to open a side business for his family. Later on we were joined by a couple of his buddies. All apologised for the bad encounter at the border and even bought me a couple of beers so I would not have a bad impression of all Hondurans. Nice gesture and we had a good laugh too.

The next morning I started out at 8.00am as the hotel’s contractor began works not long before. I realised then, this was the reason why the rooms were offered at a discount. With another border crossing ahead I decided to visit the town centre (population 8K) to withdraw more cash but there hit another difficulty.

The two banks HSBC and another whose name I cannot remember didn’t accept either my debit or credit cards. Reluctant to push ahead with no big town nearby I had to think of a plan b. Not only did I need cash for the Nicaraguan border fees but also to refuel as it has been hit and miss if gas stations can process payment with a European credit card. The issue relates to our chip and pin number requirements which are not in use over here.

On the way back to the hotel I saw Jose at the restaurant, so I dropped in to see if he knew of bigger towns before the border. There weren’t any larger than the one we were in but he kindly offered to loan me some cash for the day. A remarkably generous offer but not the solution to the current predicament.

There was an Esso station nearby and I decided to take a visit as all the Esso stations in El Salvador had Citibank ATM’s in the store. I lucked out on the ATM however I explained the situation to the two ladies behind the counter. Fortunately they saved the day by giving me the equivalent of a USD200 cash advance from my credit card. I thought this was possible back home but never had the reason to avail of it. I was just relieved that I could use my credit card for the petrol payment in the first instance. By 9.00am I was finally on the road. But one last negative encounter in Honduras.

Not 10km from La Cruz I was stopped by the police. Just a two manned checkpoint where I was quizzed about my reflective strips and lack of breakdown (triangle) signal. They initially asked for USD20 to let me proceed but I flatly refused. I was determined on point of principle not to be ripped off again. If they stopped me from proceeding, I’d park the bike on the side of the road, hitch back to Jose and get a tow. After complaining about the muchas expensivo frontera, gasoline etc I wore them down to USD5. Even still, having to bribe cops is pathetic.

Although I hadn’t planned to spend the night in Honduras I was glad I did. Had I driven straight through I would have left with a nasty impression of the country. Instead, the friendliness and kindness of regular Hondurans from the hotel staff, to Jose and his buddies and the ladies at the Esso gas station all helped to compensate for the negative experience encountered with State employees.

On the flip side, the entry into and out of Nicaragua was fast, painless and cost less than USD20. This included basic insurance coverage, an obligatory but welcome requirement. For the rest of the trip I have probably another ten borders to cross. No doubt there will be a mixture of experiences. In future blogs I’ll simply refer to the experience as either: plain sailing for an easy crossing, a moderate swell where some hassle was encountered or rough seas when it has been an ordeal. Anyway.

After all that the ride through Nicaragua was fantastic. A beautiful countryside with great roads (by Central American standard). The small beach town of San Juan del Sur (population of 18K) was my destination. A tip from my good buddy back in Amsterdam – Jan Aire. I decided to skip the capital -Managua, as I needed a break from the urban setting having come from Guatemala City and San Salvador.

The chilled out week flew by even though it felt like I didn’t do much. San Juan is dominated by the beach and tourism activities. And, even better it’s not tarnished by upmarket resorts or tacky neon facades. There is hardly any three story buildings and accommodation ranges from small hotels, hostels and even rooms in family homes.

By simply driving up the beachfront and after only two enquiries I managed to get a great beach front room with a private balcony for only USD22 per night. Even this was in the pricey bracket by local standards. But no way was I going to stay in a private room of a hostel to save USD8-10. The only drawback with this hotel was that I generally woke up before seven each morning. The sound of the waves and the town coming to life prevented further sleep.

On the positive side, I generally went for a swim while I had the entire beach to myself. Awesome way to shake the cobwebs off. It was also good to hit the beach early, as the 35-degree afternoon heat was prohibitive. In fact, the temperature and humidity was stifling and reminded me of trying to breadth in a sauna. So refuge was split between my roofed balcony or in one of the local bars.

The best bar in town was Iguana. A nice bar in the centre of the strip that served great food. Its central location ensured a lively full house in the evening. Only for the good atmosphere created by the patrons I’d never have gone back as the service was appalling. Luckily a Frenchman recommended The Black Whale.

A cool laid back bar with good music (mostly rock or reggae), pool tables and a couple of hammocks. I played many games of pool, introduced an assorted group of locals and tourists to the game Killer of which I won a good few. One afternoon I asked a guy who was playing by himself if he fancied a game.

Not only did he beat me but played the entire game using only one hand. He didn’t even rest the cue on the table for some shots. Initially I thought it was cool to watch but it was quite unsportsmanlike to play the entire game in this way. By the time we finished I had images of my cue in two pieces and Mr Exhibitionist holding his head. I did however enjoy the bar’s hammocks.

In the shade of a big tree I read for a couple of hours each day while gently swaying in an extremely comfortable hammock. This was only the second time I lay in one. On more than one occasion I dropped into a snooze. One day I slept for 90 minutes. Although a short nap it was one of those deep sleeps, which felt much longer. I slowly came to, realising my surrounds before I eventually opened my eyes. It was nice to wake to the soft ballads of Tracy Chapman. Who not only is a bit of a revolutionary but also drives a fast car.

I had two good sessions on the lash. The first impromptu and the second kind-da planned. One afternoon while having a quiet beer and reading the awesome page turner The Girl with Dragon Tattoos, the two groups at the adjoining tables mergered forces. The resulting boisterousness made it impossible to read and forced me to join the fun. Interestingly, it’s common practice for the staff here not to clear the table of bottles until after the bill has been paid.

I guess it avoids people questioning the bar staff about the amount they had to drink. By the time we had finished I would have preferred not to know how many litre bottles of the local brew (Tona) we’d consumed. The second session was with my neighbours from the hotel.

A nice Czech couple who shared my balcony, Thomaz and his girlfriend who had an extremely difficult name to remember. It might have been Ana. Both hired bicycles one afternoon to visit some of the other nearby beaches. On the way back they were robbed by a local guy who jumped out from the trees wielding a machete no less. The bikes and a small amount of cash were taken. Apart from the shock both were fine. To help them recover we all headed back to The Black Whale for another proper session.

A good nights sport was had. Two days later we both left San Juan. They went north to Cancun while I headed south to Costa Rica.

The only other item of peculiarity that I noticed was the number of people in Central America that have one or more gold teeth. I even saw a policeman with a good tooth. Such a sight always makes me think of Romanian gypsies. An awful thing to say, but it clearly highlights poor taste and a lack of schooling. With gold now fetching an all time high of USD1,500 an ounce I would like to think such dental jewellery might become less frequently seen but no doubt it will become even more of a status symbol.

To finish on a positive, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Nicaragua. I’m now in San Jose (Costa Rica) but will go to the beach for Easter weekend.

Have a great Easter or as they say in this part of the world feliz Semana Santa (Holy Week). And for Gods sake don’t eat too many Cadburys cream eggs.

Al Dempsey.
22 April 2011.

PS. My gps is not picking up a signal in Costa Rica, so it shows the bike is stuck at the border. Should work in Panama next week.