We hit the road early to make it to the Honduran border crossing. There’s a chance we’ve read too much about the trip through Honduras, because even though its only about an 80km drive until the border of Nicaragua we’re a bit worried about it. We’ve read countless accounts of how corrupt the country is and the last story we read described 14 checkpoints within the 80km; being stopped and harassed for bribes at several of them. Most overlanders don’t even think about stopping in Honduras, especially not driving through it in a straight shot while trying to navigate the two border crossings in a single day. Fear and stress does not equal a good start to any border day, much less one where we might cross two.
While not a skill we would strive for on our resumes, we feel like we’re getting fairly good at the whole border process now. Mostly, this is a mindset, you can’t be in a hurry and can’t have a specific destination in mind. Certainly, you can’t expect efficiency or politeness, and you need to just keep smiling and take your time. You can do this in about the same time without any helpers, while saving a ton of cash and helping to stop the cycle of bribes and helpers. Checking out of the first country means canceling the vehicle permit, then the passports. This tends to be fairly painless, but it’s still slow, requires the stressful battle with the helpers, and feels like a long border crossing in its own right. Our day starts by weaving our way up the wrong lane past (or between) the long line of trucks waiting for customs.
That complete, we drive a few kilometers to “other side” where we have to check-in...and the madness starts all over. More helpers, more ridiculously laid out government buildings, and more copies. Also, in the case of Honduras, lots of copies. There is what appears to be a nice new bridge just before the crossing, but we are turned away and told to continue to the old rickety bridge crossing that falls just after what can only be described as a bombed out war zone. From buildings that are half falling apart to the shrapnel of wrecked cars on the side of the road…you’d never know that you’re in a place “welcoming” visitors to their country. Oddly, the crowd that pounces on the bus are actually Honduran officials. The first two take our documents and leave, but as I keep an eye on them they really just stand to the side of the road waiting for everyone else to finish with us. The second two officials take Jen aside to ask for a tour of the bus and start talking about importing Karma (our dog). I then get asked a lot of questions about where were from and where we’re planning to go. All this, sadly, has nothing to do with getting into the country, just Honduras trying to figure out why tourists don’t like their country...which I would have been happy to help with if they only asked.
Oddly, the officials actually escorted us down the road to where we needed to be. How nice. At least the usual process of walking around aimlessly looking for an unsigned buildings is out of the way. The buildings are still unsigned, and placed in the wrong order but at least within a few buildings of one another and we eventually find both migracion and aduana (and the place for copias on the other side of the highway). The banco however is well on the other side of the highway and down a street that looks worse than most war movie sets. The scene of Jen exchanging funds on the street anywhere else in the world would surely be mistaken for a drug deal. Two hours and 38 copies later we are free to go. We wonder a bit what happens with all the paper copies used in this process but as we walk out we spot a few ladies peeking out from towers of paper forts. I assume this wall is only from this morning and is a frightening indicator of what must be produced over time. The ladies, I also assume are expert paper fort builders and are working to invent a new building system to house the masses.
I drive white knuckled for the first few km, copies of documents in one hand and telling Jen what my plan is for the first corrupt policia asking for a bribe. We have backup plans of course, but it’s better if we both go in with the same general plan of action. We soon loosen up and Jen even gets comfortable enough to go in the back to make a snack. We both start doing the math in our heads and are afraid to say anything for fear of jinxing it, but theres no way we are on track for 14 checkpoints unless they all happen at the end. We make it almost halfway through honduras before getting stopped and the policia barely asks where we are going before giving us each a firm handshake and telling us to enjoy our day. We were baffled. Maybe the Honduran Government has finally figured out what all the other Central American countries have…that smiling, happy (non-bribing) policia might actually bring in more tourism dollars? Maybe a memo went out earlier this week…
Another half-hour or so later we came to a dead stop. Trucks and cars piled as far as the eye can see, but the car ahead of us moves into the left hand lane and starts driving by the trucks—much like we do when nearing a border, so I follow. This goes well until oncoming traffic meets our pack and we have to pull off the left roadside to allow the traffic by on our right. The mayhem taking over feels very legit and the only policia we can make out are either gathered talking about the situation or standing in the middle of the road snapping photos with their phones... We eventually see traffic in our original lane start to move and weave through the lane of oncoming traffic to merge back into the correct lane. It turns out the holdup is hundreds of busses parked untidily on either side of the highway, which stops anything more than one lane of traffic flow. We had heard earlier that there was some kind of protest today, and apparently all the bus drivers in the country are having a bit of a break.
Our assumption is that the reason we haven’t seen any policia is that they are preoccupied with managing the bus driver coup…but we’ll take it no matter what the cause (and really hope that if the foretold memo hasn’t gone out, that it does before our next drive-through). Regardless…we make it through the country with only 2 checkpoints- one with a firm handshake and another with only a wave—unbelievable.
We approach the Nicaraguan border but get waved over by a policia and his pals less than 200m from the actual aduana. Apparently it was too good to be true. He asks for our papers and will not accept copies. He begins some his performance and tells to each of his friends while constantly shaking his head about how we don’t have the right things (despite the fact we handed him exactly the documents he requested). His english-speaking friend (presumably there to play the good-cop role and explain what has gone wrong and how much we are supposed to pay to resolve the situation) doesn’t do him any favors. He instead seems to like us and the bus. He asks if we saw him on the highway and we remember passing he and his buddy on a moped a few times and exchanging waves and smiles. Good thing. The cop continues the show but his buddy confirms that our docs look fine so we grab our papers and continue on. I can’t imagine having gone through that 14 times in the last two hours, much less without the “good” cop turning legit.
We pull ahead to the actual “border” and things get crazy. I can’t wrap my head around who comes up with these borders. The highway splits into two one-way streets separated by a large median. In order to get to the government building we have to actually drive the wrong way down the left fork dodging oncoming traffic until reaching the parking lot where we can exit E and head in for paperwork. We walk past buildings that were clearly used for bomb target practice to unmarked buildings until finding a few desks sitting outside. Seriously, Honduras…do yourself a favor and spend a few dollars on a marketing firm. Tourists are NOT attracted to warzones, and this image isn’t helping your already tattered reputation.
Even the desks don’t have signs but there is stamping/signing going on which looks official, and we finally get a head nod of confirmation. Passports are good, so now we have to find aduana, which is in the next building over but not on the side facing us, of course…but on the far side facing jungle and rubble. Again no signs and no open windows. Only after following traces of cold air escaping from a slit in the wall, bending down to hip height and peeking through a window do we finally see a set of hands typing and eventually get someone to crank a window open half way and help us. We walk back and forth across the highway to make copies and after finishing we still have to complete the drive up the wrong-way fork until finally merging with traffic in the correct direction.
We are feeling great but before getting to the Nicaraguan side another official asks to see our docs. He takes a look and all is fine, but then hands them to a policia who seems to notice things are missing and makes us pull over. The official moves on to others but the policia wont return our docs. This time the good-cop in in cahoots and we don’t have an ally. They play the game for a while, but finally give up and hand us our docs back. We’re not sure why as no money changed hands as later we talked to a couple of new friends that weren’t so lucky…
Once on the Nicaraguan side, things were much different- one building, migracion and aduana connected by a single hallway, bank at the far end… it almost seemed like we had entered modern times. Everything complete, we grabbed our docs and hustled out, trying to make the beach before sunset. It’s now 4:30. Thats 2 hours driving in El Salvador, 2 hours driving in Honduras and almost 5hours of border tedium between the two. This is a day of our lives we will not try to recreate, even knowing it could have been far worse. The couple we saw at both ends happened to crash at the same hostel as us and between bribes, helper payments and actual border fees, our $60 day cost them more like $360. Ouch.