Day 35 – San Miguel, El Salvador to ?, Honduras

Ahh Honduras, you bureaucratic ass wipe…

A little before 5 AM Dachary wakes up and realizes we haven’t taken the Malaria pills. Fuck. We do. I then stress over the effects of taking the pill near the morning. Which gets me all stomach acidy, which gets me stressed, which makes my stomach tense and acidy, which makes me stress… I don’t really sleep much between then and 7 when the alarm goes off. The air conditioning (luxury I know) which was controllable by degree, was such that at the 25 deg c setting we froze, and at 26 deg c we were covered with a sticky patina of quasi-sweat. This didn’t help.

When 7 o’clock comes I’m somewhat nauseous, as I start getting ready I’m even more so. Eventually, I slowly, get up, get dressed, get packed and we start to deal with loading the bikes.

We were drenched in sweat before we’re half-way done. Breakfast was acquired at a Burger King we’d noticed the night before, based on the assumption that since they had breakfast in the US they were likely to here. This assumption proved correct. The large room with the kiddy play area was filled with people studying to be good Burger King employees, with test papers and slides being projected.

The ride to the border was only notable in that in our attempt to find the shorter route we drove ten miles further trying to find the turn-off.

The border at El Amatillo, El Salvador though…

El Salvador customs was as trivial going out as in, except that the customs office is 4 kilometers from the immigration and if it weren’t for the somewhat aggressive helper we’d have gone the wrong way to the thing that looked like a border but apparently wasn’t (ignore it, go left).

El Salvador customs requires 2 copies of the form they gave you with a sticker when you entered. So make copies before you get to the border if you can. They’ll stamp the copies and sign them. You only need one of them as far as I can tell, but hey, I’ll take a spare…

When we made it to the El Salvador customs all the helper had done was show me where to make copies (at the tiny building that says copies about 100 meters before the customs gate). Dachary wasn’t in favor of accepting any more help and then providing the obligatory tip, but I went with it, and ultimately, am quite thankful I did.

He pointed us to the El Salvador immigration window (trivially easy). And then led us to the bridge (show them the papers the guy at customs signed I think) and then to the other side of the bridge where another customs guy takes your passport, your license, and your registration and meanders off to the totally unmarked customs office while you find somewhere to park. You could just follow slowly behind him, but the helper and his new friend who spoke English (you’ll find plenty of them at the El Salvador Immigration building) showed us somewhere to park a little farther down the road as there are only four spaces in front of the customs building.

Now, there IS a large blue building that says Aduana on it, but that’s not the building you want. You go in there for your immigration stamp which takes about one minute and costs $3. But, if you’re facing the blue Aduana look to your right for the dirty brown building with three square columns and zero signage. That’s the customs building. The official you gave your passport to has disappeared in there. You, however, can not. You must wait outside until someone emerges and calls your name. It’s air conditioned, but it’s unlikely you’ll see the inside for more than a few seconds.

Dachary waited with the bikes. I waited with the helper. I was called, but we’d gone to immigration. Fortunately a Canadian we’d chatted with told them to wait a moment and ran and grabbed us. We ran back, words were exchanged, more waiting commenced. The man emerged, words were exchanged. More waiting commenced. Repeat. Oh wait. Now it’s time for lunch. More waiting. Lunch passes. man emerges, words are exchanged.

Title is requested. Fuck that. Registration. Grumbles. Discussion over transit vs tourist visa because no title. We didn’t need a title to get in before, and theoretically we’re not fully out since when we left Honduras we told them we wanted to come back and they said fine, but we had to bring the bikes back in three days. Today was the third day. More discussion. Man disappears, reemerges, discusses, repeats. Eventually… helper says they say I have to go back to Guatemala to get a new exit stamp from there before I can get into Honduras. What?! WTF does Guatemala have to do with it? I’m leaving El Salvador. I left Guatemala before I came to Honduras the first time.

More discussion. Eventually I make it into the secret room. The woman in yellow is unmoved. “No. You must go back to Guatemala.” More discussion. I explain that we are returning from El Salvador. “Why did you go to El Salvador?” “We wanted to visit San Salvador.” This doesn’t seem to have any effect. “No. You have to go to Guatemala and get an exit stamp.”

This made zero sense to me at the time, but pissing off a customs agent is never a good plan, so we made our way out. Long story short. El Salvador is trivial to get in and out of, but part of the reason for that is that they put zero stamps in your passport. So, as far as anyone can tell from our passport, we never went there. (Except that we have copies of our bike’s import permits that have been canceled with an official stamp from El Salvador, but nothing in our passport for us.)

Now, obviously the Honduras customs woman knows this (it is the El Salvador border she works at), and I have the exit stamp on the paperwork from El Salvador but if you look at the passport it says that we entered and then left Guatemala, entered Honduras, left honduras, and now, without having gone anywhere, are asking to come back to Honduras. That simply won’t do my friends. You can’t re-enter without having gone somewhere in your passport, and we did not. The english speaking helper (Jordan) asked if it would work if we could get El Salvador to stamp something in the passport. She shrugged. It was worth a try.

So, we trotted back to El Salvador. A guard at the bridge checked my passport, and seemed perfectly happy to let me into El Salvador even though I was checked into Honduras. Back at the El Salvador immigration he looked at the passport and, because they don’t stamp passports, was unable to help at all.

Back to Honduras, back to the lady…. brick wall. Come, lets go wait. We go back to the bikes. “She isn’t going to give it to you.” says Jordan, “but she will go home tonight and the border is open 24 hours. Maybe we can get the next guy to do it.”

Along the way there have been various suggestions that money would make this all go away. I was not prepared, at this point, to start handing out $150 per bike to get the stamp. So, we waited. Jordan disappeared, then came back suggesting that for only $20 I could get one of the officials to stamp us out to go back to El Salvador. I told him I wasn’t about to bribe anyone to go in the wrong direction, and that while I didn’t intend to bribe anyone, if i WAS going to bribe someone it would be to go towards Nicaragua not back into El Salvador and Guatemala. Alas, more waiting. Eventually there was more discussion about the shift change. Dachary missed the part where it was stated that 10pm would be the appropriate time to retry and Jordan said he’d return in 2hrs.

I made a total newb move and let him walk off with the papers. They were all copies, but one of each set had the official stamp from the guy at El Salvador customs. I had a spare, so i could go it alone without him, but it still irked me that I let him. Of course, two hours came and went. Around three hours later I saw the original helper ( I never got his name ) down the road and tracked him down.

It was now about four PM and we’d arrived around eleven AM. Yes, he said Jordan was around, somewhere (El Salvador I think) and yes, he had the paperwork, and yes he would be back. “When?” ….”neuve” (9 PM). Great….

Dachary was stressed before this, and upon hearing the news was… very stressed. She’d been sitting by the bikes being hit upon by various men (often drunk) who failed to grasp the concept of someone who doesn’t speak their language not being able to carry on a conversation with them.

Waiting at El Amatillo

Not long after sunset the original helper reappeared. Come… we make this happen. Jordan had been replaced with a plump interpreter with a desire for dollars. Basically, for something like $75 a bike we could get it all taken care of. Coming in legally it had been like $36, but we didn’t have an exit stamp from Guatemala, and getting a stamp into Honduras without having gone anywhere required a little… grease.

Now, I’m generally opposed to bribes, and am stubborn enough to say fuck that and drive back to Guatemala, as I was fairly confident that I could get back over the border in that direction without bribing anyone, but by this point, Dachary was near tears. Stressed from a generally unpleasant experience since leaving Copan (and that one tainted by the perceived theft) and really really not happy about the prospect of spending another night in another shitty hotel like the one beside us at the border, and not having anywhere to set up a tent in this no-mans land (total shit hole of a border crossing), and not wanting to ride at night, especially with me having no real low beam and the officials on the impending stretch of road being well known for wanting to pull you over to get bribes…. she was left without any options that didn’t add more stress.

So, I made an executive decision. It was time to bribe. Now, we had about $30 in US currency left (not expecting to need it) and more than enough Limperas to pay the official fees to get back in, even though we were expecting them to be less since, in theory, the bikes were only kind-of checked out, but as the US dollars weren’t enough to cover the fees and the bribe I needed to pay in Limperas and they wanted 3,000. I told them no. I only had 2000. Much discussion and verbal discussion of numbers ensued. They were trying to figure out how much that left them after the bribe and fees. Not enough apparently. I held fast but it was not to be.

I’ve got maybe $20 US I tell them. Discussion, discussion. No. 2,000 L and $30 US was what it was going to take. Oh wait… I really don’t have 3,000 L. Shit, I don’t even have 2,000 L. I’ve got just over 1,700…. “Can you go to the ATM? There’s one about 5K back?” No way. No how. I am not giving you guys a blank fucking checque.

Back to Dachary to have her extract some more US from the pannier. Not something we wanted to do with a helper looking over our shoulder but… She extracted $60. I managed to hide $20 of it. Ok …So, 1,700L + $60 US. Yes, that was probably more than the 3000L but at this point I honestly didn’t give a shit. I wanted this done.

Yes, that was enough. Hand over the passports because, of course, there’s no way the official will do it in front of me. Fuck it. I hand them over. They disappear into the customs building. At this point there a three helpers and a guy who seems to be just hanging around for the hell of it, it’s pitch black out. Dachary is back at the bikes being proposition by multiple men in various states of inebriation… Helpers emerge. Helpers enter. Helpers emerge. One likes to bitch about something annoying about the customs official. At this point I’m wondering if they’re just totally scamming me and it was something that I could have actually done myself with the new person…

Enter, emerge, bitch, repeat. Eventually they emerge with passports… but no, we’re not done yet. Honduras needs three copies of everything, even their illegal passport stamps. They run the passports across the road. I could follow, but I can see the shack he’s running to, and honestly I don’t give a fuck. I’m not worried that he’s going to run off with them. Copies are made. Copies are delivered. Passports emerge. Oops. One of them has us needing to leave on the 11th of January (tomorrow) and one of them has us needing to leave on the 11th of October. The October one goes back for a doctoring. No new photocopies are required. Time passes. Official papers emerge. Copies are made. This time the copies are for us. We need them to give to the guy at the gate a little ways down the road.

At no point did any official check our bikes, which confirms what I had suspected. That we really were bribing an official and not just lining the pockets of helpers.

The topic of fumigation had come up earlier in the day, even though the border by Copan had none, and we’d seen no-one fumigating anything here. I was dubious. I suspect Jordan was trying to get more money in an earlier attempt at getting me to bribe someone. Fumigation was not mentioned during the actual bribery, and as far as I can tell, there is none. I believe that two or three taxes were actually paid as part of the bribe.

Total cost approximately $171 US to get into Honduras a second time, for one day.

Now, many of you are stubborn, like me, and would have said fuck it and gone back to Guatemala for an exit stamp. But you have to consider that it’ll take you a day to cross El Salvador, you’ll have to pay to enter Guatemala, you’ll have to pay to exit Guatemala, and you’ll have to pay to enter Honduras again. Plus, you’ll need to sleep a few times dung all of this so add in few nights in hotels and food, and gas…. $171 US is starting to sound like a good deal financially, plus a fuckload less annoyance. Add on top of that the sanity of the woman you love and it’s a fucking bargain.

Helper #1 came back to the bikes, made sure each of us had the fancy paper and the photocopy for the gate man, and then, even though it was specifically stated that he was getting paid from the bribery and didn’t need a tip, asked for a tip. This was not at all unexpected. He was rather insistent. I was rather broke, and also rather motivated to get the fuck out of there. I started pulling out 20 Limpera notes (I had 2) and wasn’t going to give him my ones, five, and a ten, but he managed to convey that that was a shit tip (it was) and he deserved more (probably not). Fuck it. I said again. There’s no point in arguing over what is essentially $2 US worth of notes that can’t buy me anything. I handed them over.

Oh wait… Dachary needed to go to the bathroom. I didn’t know, and the bathroom costs 5L…

We drive. The plan is to stop at the first ATM or gas station as we have no money, and the gas stations in Honduras have, to date, not charged anything for the bathroom. No bank.

Whilst waiting in the dark for corrupt dealings to conclude I had a rather good idea. There’s not any significant difference between a low beam and a high beam other than the direction they’re pointed in. Why then, do my Denali LED lights have to be high beams. As we suited up to leave I turned them on, and repointed them to have a minimal spread and point not far beyond the bike… voilla! Instant low beam. Turning off my high beam and leaving just the Denalis seemed to please the truckers who would flash you if you didn’t turn down your highs…

We continued driving, past two police checkpoints. Getting stopped at one. Eventually street lights appeared (gasp) and a town full of lights…. and then “Hey, there’s a hotel.” says Dachary. “Where?” “We just passed it.” We turn around, pull in, and it’s swank. It’s expensive too, but it’s nice, and Dachary has had a particularly stressful day and zero desire to deal with another shit place.

Fuck it. Lets go for it. It’s nice, it requires zero more driving in the dark and the odds of finding another non-shit hotel along the way, in the dark, are pretty slim. Also they have internet and, it turns out, secure parking. Best yet, they take visa. No ATM required for Limpera, no digging hidden dollars off of the bike, but I asked, and yes they take them too.

We go in. Oh, the restaurant? Yeah, that’s open for another hour and a half. Holy shit! We eat. It’s not bad. We can’t find internet. Oh, it’s only in the lobby… We get our laptops and go to the lobby as Dachary suspects she has work materials from a client. Oh… the password doesn’t work. “Did I get this right?” “Yup, that’s it.” says the receptionist. “Are you sure, because it’s not working?” she reads what I’ve typed carefully “Yup, that’s it.”

Fuck…. back to the room.

Oh the hot water on the spigot sticker? Yeah, it’s just on the sticker….

Fuck…

Well, at least the bed is nice, and the room is nice, and the air conditioning isn’t evil.

[Dachary’s Note]
I’ve never felt being a woman at a border crossing so acutely as I did today. When the helpers extracted Kay around 11:30AM to do the paperwork for us, I didn’t think too much of it. One of us should clearly stay with the bikes as this was a very busy border crossing – much bigger than the ones we’ve used before and the bikes weren’t really close to where we’d be doing the paperwork. It wasn’t until they’d been gone for almost two hours that I started to think that if someone tried to actually do something to the bikes (or take something) there’s not much I could do about it. I think my presence was merely a deterrent.

During the first part of the day, only one guy really bothered me. He’d been hit in the face pretty bad as the area around his right side was swollen, and his lip was split and swollen, too. He started chatting with me, pointing to his wounds and then off toward the Aduana building. I didn’t know what he wanted from me but I tried the “No habla Espanol” trick, which didn’t really seem to do anything. He kept trying to talk to me. A lot of “no entiendo”s later, I got up to get the book from my tank bag and as long as I had my nose in the book, he didn’t bother me. But he hung around the entire time Kay was off dealing with paperwork.

Eventually I really had to pee and I was also getting quite hungry, so I locked as much as I could down to the bike and went looking for Kay to get an update. I stayed where I could see the bikes, for the most part, but I saw no sign of Kay or the helper people so I eventually had to wander out of sight of the bikes and through the blue Aduana building. No Kay, and no helpers. I turned around to come back, and saw Kay sitting at the bikes with the helper. Apparently I’d just missed them.

We sat around together until around 6PM, and no-one really bothered me with Kay there. We had a couple of people try to chat with us – one guy spoke a little bit of English and between his English and our little bit of Spanish we had a nice little chat with him and his Spanish-speaking friend. But for the most part, people just left us alone, with the occasional smile or nod.

But around 6PM, one of the helpers came to fetch Kay, and then came back a minute later with a guy who said it would be $35 US each to take the bikes. Yay! That’s exactly what we wanted. That was the official fee. I was thrilled, and began to be optimistic about getting out of here. And they went away again. And it got dark.

During this point, a drunk (or maybe just slightly crazy) guy came over and started playing with the dog that had been hanging around the tienda where we were sitting. The dog reminded me a bit of my dog from home, and I was missing him, so I watched the guy playing with the dog and smiled. Alas, this was apparently the wrong thing to do. The guy saw me paying attention and started really hamming it up, indicating “See! Just a minute, look what I do with this dog!” The dog started going crazy and the guy just kept saying “my friend. He’s my friend” and doing more silly things, apparently for my benefit, because he kept looking to see that I was watching and gesturing for me while playing with the dog.

At some point during this, Kay comes back for something else (Lempiras, I think.) I get up to get stuff for Kay, and when I sit back down, the crazy/drunk guy was gone. Kay walks off with the helper again, and a few minutes later, the drunk guy is back with a can of beer. He opens it and takes a big swig, makes a happy sound, and then offers me a drink. “No, gracias,” I tell him. He tries offering me a drink a few more times and I decline, and then he pulls out his wallet and starts taking Lempiras out of it, and indicates that if I want a beer they sell them over there and here’s some money. “No, gracias.”

Then he starts trying to talk to me in far more than my meager Spanish can comprehend. I tell him I don’t understand, and that I only speak very little Spanish, and he switches over to a combination of mime and intermittent Spanish and starts telling me his life story. From the mime and Spanish, I get that he went to California, became a lumberjack, and his true love left him, and he cried for two years… at some point he may have worked as a truck driver or may have driven a very odd moto… I really had no friggin clue what he was saying but it was very dark by now so there was no chance of pulling my book out and trying to ignore him again. I just kept praying for Kay to come back, but the paperwork was taking forever.

At one point, a cab driver in a Tuk-Tuk walks up to the tienda and starts trying to chat with me about the bikes. I give him my “no entiendo” routine and he sort of smiles and nods and goes into the store. The drunk guy continues to pester me, and when the cabbie comes back out, he sees my predicament and before he gets within site of the drunk guy, he makes the “he’s crazy” hand gesture. I nod and smile a bit, agreeing with the cabbie.

The cabbie comes out and right in front of the drunk guy waves his hand in front of his nose like the guy stinks. (He does stink, in fact.) The drunk guy gets offended by this. At this point I’ve gotten up and am standing next to Kay’s bike because I’m sick of sitting and I want to put a little distance between me and the drunk guy. The drunk guy and the cabbie start having a verbal exchange, which I gather was essentially “Come back here and say that to my face!” or some other equally stupid, macho thing, and the cabbie just waves it off and walks away.

The drunk guy then starts trying to get me to sit down next to him again, but I try conveying that I’m tired of sitting and that standing is bueno. Then he waves off toward the direction the cabbie went, and makes a dismissive gesture, and I just shrug. He starts miming that he’s sad I won’t sit down next to him again, and I continue the “no entiendo” and that I don’t want to sit down again. Apparently he thinks that the cabbie has turned me against him, and he sadly gets up and starts to walk away, continuing to gesture to me from time to time. Eventually he waves and wanders off, and I see him a few minutes later standing about 100 feet away watching me to see if I notice he’s gone.

Dear God. This was painful.

So ladies – it may or may not be ok to sit around with bikes during the day. But after dark – beware of the men who will try to proposition you/buy you beers/grab or kiss you as you walk away.

Kay asks me to point out that had I been the one with the helper guys in the beginning, the woman at the window may have taken pity on me and not tried to send me all the way back to Guatemala. Personally, I think if I’d been there I would have gotten annoyed and done something that would have pissed her off and we’d still be sitting at the border.


Afterthoughts:
Would I recommend using a helper at this border crossing? Absolutely. Had we not made the mistake of going into El Salvador after Honduras they would have seriously expedited the process and only cost a tip of $5-10 US. But, hold out on getting one until you reach the El Salvador immigration. Then you can choose from a number of them who speak good English. Even if you spanish is good I’d still lean towards getting one because $5 isn’t a bad price for being led directly to all the windows, told which papers to hand to what people, and when to make how many copies of what. Because there’s no getting into Honduras without a plethora of copies. Not counting the copies made during the bribery we needed the three copies of the license, registration, passport, and i think two copies of the copies stamped by the El Salvador customs man.

Would I recommend using this crossing? Absolutely not. Use it if you must, but considering the number of bribery options I was presented during the day there are obviously a lot of corrupt people working on the Honduras side of it. I believe there are some border crossings along El Salvador’s northern border near the eastern end. Try those instead.

The biggest piece of advice I can give future travelers though is to simply not go from Honduras to El Salvador to Honduras. If you want to visit El Salvador you should enter it from Guatemala. That way your passport has a Guatemala exit stamp that Honduras can counter with their entry stamp.

Also, before you leave El Salvador make two copies of the paper they gave you with the stamp.

About Kay

An old-school geek, addicted to travel, with a love of programming, writing, Esperanto, and starting businesses. -- @masukomi on Twitter.

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