Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Quick Pass through Honduras

Monday
When we backed out of our camping spot that morning, a palm tree attacked our mirror. While it doesn’t look like it should be that bad, our mirror was on pretty secure. Before it broke the mirror off, it bent up the door post pretty badly, resulting in the window not being able to roll down and the door not sealing properly. What a way to start the day.

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We decided to go ahead and cross into Honduras on this day. But, we needed to obtain a set of reflecting triangles (like semis use when they pull off on the side of the road), which are required in Honduras as well as a fire extinguisher. So, we decided to see if we could find anything in La Unión. Sadly, our guidebook led us astray and there was no cyber café where they said it would be. There was a hardware store (ferretería), but they didn’t have any nor know where we could find one, so we moved on.

When we were about 2 km from the border, there is a checkpoint where the border official cancels your vehicle permit (see process if interested). Immediately, we were assaulted with men offering to help us. All I wanted was a copy of my permit so that I could get it stamped when we got our other permit canceled (one of the requirements). They were offering to get the copies or something for $5. No way. So I got out and found a copy shop. They made the copy for $0.10. Much better. I got back in the van with Jonathan and went to the stop. They had us pull off and bring them the permit. The official took them, stamped them, and then explained that I could walk across and get the three more copies I needed of the canceled permit for free. That was nice. I got the copies. I needed a few more copies of a couple of other things, though. So I went back to the original place and got a few more copies of my other documents.

We found the El Salvador side of the border, and got our passports stamped. Then we were allowed to leave for Honduras. This was the interesting part. In Honduras, as soon as you cross the bridge, we got stopped by customs, they asked for all our paperwork and then took off with it and ask us to follow. However, just as soon as customs agent started down the road, we were pulled over by the Honduran police. He wanted to make sure we had a fire extinguisher and two reflecting triangles. We showed him the fire extinguisher, but told him we couldn’t find a place that sold the triangles. A “helpful” guide there said he could take us to a store that sells them, so I followed him to get the triangles. Turns out you also have to have red/white reflecting tape on your vehicle as well. So I spent a whopping $33 for the two triangles and 6 strips of tape, talk about extortion. By this point I was very flustered. I couldn’t see the customs agent anywhere, and he had our vehicle title and registration, etc. Jonathan was left alone with the Honduran police officer and I had just paid way too much money. Then I had to clean off the van and put on the stickers (btw, I really don’t like stickers). Apparently the police officer had given up with Jonathan after I left and walked over to the other side of the road to watch in the shade.

Finally, cleared with the police, the customs official had returned when I was putting on the stickers. I asked him about parking. He said there was a spot in front of the customs building. And the guide that had attached onto me stuck with us. I told him that I didn’t have any money for a guide, but he and the customs official said it was a free service; well that was nice. We got parked and followed them into the customs building. Personally, I thought this was backwards and turns out it was. The lady official there, obviously the one who knew what was going (have I told you how much I love women workers in a predominantly-male career?), saw us and asked if we had been to immigration yet. We said no; she gave us our passports back and sent us there, our guide directing us to the location. We were given forms to fill out and told it would cost $3pp. As I filled out the forms, I apparently took too long… A large group of people filled in before us. So we got back in line, but apparently our definition of personal space is much larger than theirs, and another person cut in front of us. I gave out an exasperated sigh, and the guide helping the guy who cut in front of us told him that he had cut and he let us ahead. Muchas gracias. We paid and got our cards and receipts and stamps.

I had read that we would need copies of our passport stamp, so our guide took us over to a copy shop to get them. Turns out we didn’t need that. So much for our guide knowing what he was doing. We went back to customs and the friendly, breath-of-fresh-air agent. She got all of our paperwork lined up. Her stamps were worn out though, so I had to read her the words on the stamp so that she could put the correct information on the passport’s vehicle import. When she finished, she needed two copies of everything. I had copies already of everything but the permit, the title, and her stamp. So, we walked back to the copy shop. By this time our guide had left us, as we pretty much knew what we were doing. And, lesson learned, I will not make copies of anything until they ask for it. Trying to have what they need beforehand has just been wasting money and I still have to go back and get a copy of whatever they do. As an added bonus, they didn’t need to inspect the van, nor did they ask about vegetables or meat.

Other than the fiasco with the police right when we crossed the border, the crossing was rather painless. We were now cleared to travel through Honduras. We had been warned that in 2012, there were 14 police checkpoints in this 80-mile stretch of highway between El Salvador and Nicaragua. This time, there were only 5, I think and we were only stopped by the ones at the borders. Only the first one asked about our equipment. Thus, we made it without incident to Hotel Gualiqueme, our next camping spot. We parked in their parking lot, and took advantage of the pool and air-conditioned lobby. We even found a laundry mat in the parking area that cleaned our clothes for us. We were in heaven.

Tuesday

We decided to finish our journey through Honduras and head into Nicaragua.  Our travels took us from Choluteca to the border town, Guasaule. The roads there were pretty miserable with huge potholes riddling the road. We were thankful if we found half a kilometer stretch that didn’t require us to dodge a pothole.

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One of our guidebooks, Life Remotely, described this crossing as hell iced over. Basically, it was supposed to look like a bomb had gone off and the people were supposed to be sketch, etc. Fortunately, a year changes things. We found the border in a completely-renovated condition. Instead of the debris-lined area with the immigration officer sitting outside to escape the heat, there was a freshly-painted (and being painted) yellow building with lots of nice parking. It was air-conditioned inside. You can enter on either side and cross over to the other side, but the southwest side was customs and the northeast side was immigration. We went to each side, got our stamps and approvals in minutes and we allowed to proceed to Nicaragua.
When we crossed into Nicaragua, we were fumigated and waved over to pay the bill and get insurance. There was a bit of a cat fight with the insurance ladies over who was going to get to provide us insurance. It cost the same ($12), so I didn’t care and one eventually allowed the other work with me.  All that taken care of, we were told that the vehicle permit would be free, but tourist cards would cost $12. They pointed to where the immigration/customs building was, but I had a hard time seeing/understanding. We followed the instructions in our book about turning a sharp left, but as we did, Jonathan saw someone point us to a different area. So he went where they pointed. We determined that it was a semi-only area and kept searching. Eventually, we made it all the way to the end of the border area and the guys there asked for our paperwork from immigration and customs. I told him that we missed them and asked for more instructions. Still uncertain, but determined to find it, we turned around. This time, we found it, but we were on the leaving Nicaragua side, not that it mattered. We got money at the ATM there, which surprisingly didn’t charge us any transaction fee.

We went to the immigration line and provided our passports and fees. After a few questions, the guy told us to go to the next window to get our change and cards. This part was a bit confusing as the next window said closed, but a guy stepped up to it and started doing work. Eventually, Jonathan could see them holding our passports and such, so we knew we were at the right spot. After several minutes, he provided us with everything. Onto customs. As I learned at the last crossing, I didn’t make any copies of any of the documents until they asked for it. This was a good thing as they didn’t ask for any copies. I think they scanned or printed a copy of the documents for themselves, but they didn’t ask anything of me. That was super nice. A few minutes later, we had all our documents. Other than having a hard time finding the immigration and customs buildings, it was one of the nicest border crossing experiences we had had.

Back on the road, we made our way to León. The roads were much better than in Honduras, although potholes still occasionally littered the roads. When we hit León, I tried navigating to one of the places I had picked out in our Lonely Planet Central America on a Shoestring guide. Turns out the book’s map is rather off. Between the map being off, the crazy one-way traffic, and few street signs in León, I had Jonathan park. I thought it would be much easier and calmer to try to figure things out on foot. Well, it was and it wasn’t. The map was still off. But we knew where a couple of places were, and just as we were about to give up and see if Bigfoot Hostel would have space for a van, we saw the place I had been looking for: Hotel Real. They were supposed to have a great view and nice, air-conditioned rooms, which is a necessity in the humid heat of León. As an added bonus, they had parking reserved in front of their business with a night guard. They showed us a room, and despite the high price tag of $49US, we took it. We went and grabbed the van and then came in and turned the A/C on full blast. It was wonderful. I have never appreciated A/C so much.

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