Access Denied – El Salvador Border


It was bound to happen. After 30 shockingly smooth border crossings into and out of six different countries we knew our luck at the border couldn’t last forever. Apparently, it couldn’t last until El Salvador.

The problem actually started many, many months ago but we didn’t know that as we approached the immigration station at the El Poy border crossing into El Salvador from Honduras.

 

The first bad sign

We arrived at the border around 2:30 in the afternoon and we were stopped at a preliminary check point in the brief no-man’s-land between Honduras and El Salvador. There we were asked to hand over our passports. Routine. Then things got weird.

The border agents began examining every entry and exit stamp from Guatemala and Honduras and grilling us about when we entered and exited each country. We’d spent much of the previous seven months traveling through Guatemala and Honduras, entering Guatemala on three separate occasions, so remembering exact dates was difficult. Eventually, the frowning agents took our passports into a building and told us to wait in the truck.

Meanwhile our border sidekick, a wee Scottsman named Tom (a 6’4″ rugby player, photographer and head honcho of a very cool web mag called Student at Large), sailed through the formalities with no worries and was waiting for us on the El Salvador side.

And waiting. And waiting.

 

Obelisk marks the spot: a border marker between Honduras and El Salvador at the El Poy crossing.

 

The second bad sign

After about 20 minutes a border agent emerged brandishing our passports and telling us to drive forward and park, which we did. Then we were ushered into an office. It’s never good if you end up in an office at a border crossing but that’s where we were. Things quickly got worse when the border boss, named Christian Navarro, sat down across the desk from us. With a self-satisfied smile on his face he informed us that we had a problem. We silently re-named him Señor Smug.

 

Yes, we have a problem

Employing the Central America-4 Border Regulations (CA-4) the agents had counted days from back when we most recently entered the CA-4 region during our crossing from Belize into Guatemala in early March which they considered to be the date we first entered the CA-4 region as a whole. According to their math, we’d overstayed our CA-4 allotted time by many months.

We, on the other hand, were under the impression that CA-4 regulations had been dropped for foreigners throughout Central America. There had been no sign or mention of CA-4 in Guatemala or Honduras and in Honduras a border official actually told us CA-4 was dead region-wide.

 

Meet the first arch enemy of the Trans-Americas Journey, Christian Navarro--the border boss of the El Poy crossing between Honduras and El Salvador.

 

Background: In 2006 Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador banded together to try and create a kind of mini EU to benefit Central American nations. Good idea. One of the initiatives was the CA-4 visa regulations which allowed Central American residents to travel freely across Central American borders and granted foreigners a 90 day visa that was good for all four member countries. However, foreigners could not exceed 90 days IN TOTAL in the four participating countries combined.

Why cash-starved nations would want to limit the amount of time (and money) foreigners can spend in their countries is beyond us, but they did it. Yes, visa limits are necessary (no one expects a country to let foreigners stay indefinitely). But asking travelers to spread 90 days (a normal and reasonable amount of time usually given by individual countries) between four different nations is limiting in the extreme.

During our Journey we’ve spent 140 days in Guatemala alone. So how were we then able to enter Honduras? To make an already draconian rule even more confusing and confounding, following the 2009 coup in Honduras the country chose not to apply the CA-4 rule (or was un-recognized by its neighbors), allowing foreign visitors to stay in Honduras as long as they like providing their Honduran visa is valid (you get 90 days automatically at the border), regardless of how much time they’ve already spent in any other CA-4 country.

In this unclear environment we attempted to do our CA-4 homework. To be sure about the border rules in El Salvador we emailed the Tourism Ministry of El Salvador and the El Salvador embassy in Washington DC to ask a host of questions, several times (the subject line in our emails read “URGENT Media questions from journalists entering El Salvador overland in our own vehicle”), but we never got any response from either authority.

There’s such a lack of current information about how and where CA-4 rules are applied that the US State Department warns that “In isolated cases, the lack of clarity in the implementing details of the CA-4 Border Control Agreement has caused temporary inconvenience to travelers.”

That depends on how you define “temporary” and “inconvenience.”

 

This clearly long-abandoned vehicle is parked in front of the immigration office in El Poy and it seemed a dark premonition of our own fate as we tried to enter El Salvador.

 

The bottom line (almost)

Back at the border, Señor Smug whipped out a highlighted book of border regulations (suspiciously published in 1998, eight years before CA-4 was even created) and informed us that because we’d overstayed our welcome in Central America we would each be required to pay a $114.98 fine and then he could issue us a 5 day visa.

This would leave us with three choices.

1. Tour all of El Salvador in five days and continue on to Nicaragua via Honduras. This, for us, would be logistically impossible.

2. Drive through El Salvador and cross back into Honduras at a different border then enter Nicaragua (where we’d likely have a similar CA-4 problem) and into Costa Rica (a non CA  nation), then all the way back to El Salvador with a fresh CA-4 visa good for 90 days–a trip of more than 20 hours each way and absolutely not necessary since, geographically, you don’t have to go through El Salvador at all in order to travel south from Honduras.

3. Blow El Salvador off altogether, something we didn’t want to have to do since that would mean failing at our stated goal of visiting ALL 23 countries in The Americas.

Frustrated, we explained to Señor Smug (for the 10th time) that we were sorry that we’d overstayed our 90 days but we were unaware of the rules and our work as travel journalists requires longer stays. We reminded him that we wanted to enter El Salvador in order to publicize tourism in his country. We’re here to help, we said.

It was like talking to a wall. A smiling, finger-wagging wall.

Our contacts in El Salvador are few but we walked back into Honduras to buy air time for our cell phone and then we called them all. María José Rendón, the director of marketing at the El Salvador Ministry of Tourism, said there was nothing she could do. Miguel from Suchitoto Tours said he’d make some calls. And Rodrigo at Eco Experiences El Salvador generously offered to make a few phone calls as well. However, it was nearly 5:00 pm. Phone calls were going to have to wait until the morning, and so were we.

Instead of spending the night in Los Almendros de San Lorenzo in Suchitoto (one of the best hotels in El Salvador and one we’d been assigned to write about) we spent the night in the cramped front seats of our truck parked along a dusty, noisy stretch of no-man’s-land.

 

New day, new way?

Sunrise at 5 am would have woken us up, but that would have required sleeping in the first place which didn’t really happen in the not-so-comfortable-for-sleeping front seats of our truck (our ever-loyal giant wee Scottsman “slept” on the roof of our cargo box).

By 9 am phones were blazing and Rodrigo and his super-helpful colleague Cecilia eventually reached the head of El Salvador’s Immigration Department and pleaded our case to him. He agreed to look at faxed copies of our passports and Guatemalan and Honduran entry/exit stamps.

At this news our spirits rose. Maybe there was hope yet. El Salvador seems to be attempting to increase its pathetic tourism numbers–the country is such a non-destination that Lonely Planet no longer publishes an El Salvador guidebook. Maybe this immigration official would recognize the benefit in finding a way to get working travel journalists into his country.

Nope.

Around one in the afternoon–nearly 23 hours after the whole border problem started–we were told that even though the head of immigration could have authorized a special dispensation in our case, he had refused to do so.

We could, we were reminded, still pay $114 each for a five day visa! We agree that we (unknowingly) broke CA-4 visa regulations and stayed too long in Central America. And we agree that El Salvador had the right to uphold the regulation and impose a fine. But, as we’d already pointed out, offering us just five days instead of a fresh 90 day CA-4 visa once that fine is paid is not a solution. It’s a hostage crisis.

So we bid farewell to the wee Scottsman (who had remained by our side all this time) and watched him walk into El Salvador with no small amount of jealousy. Then we turned our truck around.

 

Adios El Salvador

Back on the Honduran side of the border folks were surprised to see us again so soon but not surprised that we’d had trouble getting into El Salvador. When we explained what happened the Honduran immigration agent shook his head knowingly, as if to imply that everything that happens in El Salvador is crazy. “You are always welcome in Honduras,” he said with a slightly self-righteous smile.

Then again, these two countries don’t necessarily play nice together. In 1969 they had a violent altercation (at least 1,000 died) called The Football War and, yes, it was sparked by a soccer game…

Once back in Honduras we also had to buy a new US$40 importation certificate for our truck (so our border trouble wrecked our budget as well as our plans) but at least we had a country to call our own. In total this failed venture cost us around US$200 in phone calls, border fees and gas.

So the past two days have been full of firsts…The first time we’ve spent the night in our truck (awful). The first time we’ve traveled with a wee Scottsman (awesome–thanks for the laughs in trying times). And, oh, yeah, the first time we’ve been DENIED ENTRY INTO A COUNTRY.

Our no-man's land home for nearly 24 hours as we tried to enter El Salvador. Thankfully, as borders go, this one was slightly less dusty, trash-filled and heinous than most.

 

TIPS

Obviously the 90 day CA-4 cap is no problem for short-term vacationers. For long-term travelers like us, however, it’s a big, big problem which needs to be take into consideration when planning your route.

Anyone traveling long-term overland is in an even more difficult situation since CA-4 seems to be largely ignored at airports but strictly enforced overland. Señor Smug even suggested that we should fly into El Salvador and get a new 90 day visa upon landing, but the Journey is a road trip so this work-around was not an option for us.

And don’t assume that Honduras will keep ignoring CA-4. The regulation is still on the books and could be upheld at any time.

Getting current information about entry/exit rules is difficult (lack of information was a big part of the reason we ended up in this mess in the first place). We suggest talking to someone in the nearest embassy for the Central American countries you want to visit before leaving home.

 

 

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39 comments on “Access Denied – El Salvador Border

  1. Wow this is crazy & now it make sense why I had trouble getting into El Salvador after being in Central America for like 2 months. The guy looked & looked & looked at every stamp & asked me for exact dates on them. After about 10 minutes he finally let me in. What is weird for a country so strict on dates its funny that they dont issue a stamp. It was the only country I went to that did not issues me a stamp.

    I am sorry you were not able to get in but like you said policies are policies and well regardless of the country should be followed. As for a 90 day limit in 4 countries is actually not as bad as what Europe has going on. You have 90 days for like 10 countries in the Schengen Zone. Now that makes it hard for backpackers to travel here longer than 90 days. SO whats yalls plan now?
    Jaime recently posted..What does Paris taste like?My Profile

  2. Shoot, I wish you had known about Central America 4. We lived in Guatemala for 9 months, and we either crossed to Mexico or Belize to restart the clock. We never stayed in Honduras or El Salvador for a long period of time because of those rules, but we did spend 4 months in Nicaragua. That was an easy border crossing into Costa Rica though. So sorry you had those issues. Wish you guys would have gone to Belize first to restart your 90 days. Best of luck and hope to run into you guys when you get to South America!
    Lainie Liberti recently posted..Family on Bikes – An Uphill Battle?My Profile

  3. We too were denied entrance to El Salvador. Since then we have been told we can get a special 30 day permit so we hope to try again. Our troubles arose because our steering wheel is on the wrong – right side of the truck. Will keep you posted if we ever make it. Safe Travels, hope our paths cross agina.

  4. Its a shame that you were not allowed entry into what is a beautiful and exciting country, but I am suprised that as long distance travellers, as you put it, you had not done your homework on this regulation. You mentioned that Lonely Planet no longer considers ES worth a guide, as if this were some qualifyiing testimony. Well, if you use your own reference and read the guide on Central America on a Shoestring, they explain this 90 visa program really well. Most countries in the world allow foreign nationals 30 days per visit, so 90 days is not so unreasonable given the small size of the countries involved.
    Policy is policy, no matter what country, and to be so derrogatory about ES is in my opinion unreasonable – it was surely your responsibility to ensure compliance, and whilst I understand your disappointment and frustration, I’m afraid your blog sounds a trifle arrogant to me, particulary the suggestion that as ‘media’ you might have more importance or clout than others.
    To also demean the country’s recent history and social norms will not endear you to ES people should you ever actually come here, and I wonder how much of this was picked up at the border? As long distance travellers ourselves (who are not unaccustomed to cab sleeping), we always remember with whom the power lies at these crossings.
    We are currently in ES and enjoying our time here very much, and with a little preparation most travellers overland will be able to do so too. Miguel at Suchitoto Tours has been extraordinarilly helpful, and with some advance notice, the ES Land Rover Club were able to obtain special Ministerial permission for our RHD Defender to enter the country for 30 days.
    As and end note, we are now in our 14th country after setting off from the UK last June – and the most complex and costly country to enter with our truck has been the USA: 30 days and $3600. Please don’t infer that the more civilised, developed and ‘tourist friendly’ the country, the easier it will be to enter.
    I wish you well on your travels south, and hope you manage to cross youre remaining borders with less difficulty. Maybe we’ll even end up sharing a night in no man’s land somewhere in South America – How exciting would that be?!

    • Paul thanks for the comment. I checked out your site, quite an impressive journey you are on.
      If you read our post, I think you will agree we DID (or at least attempted to do) our homework. We are well aware of the CA-4 regs, however, Guatemala seems to be selectively enforcing the rules and Honduras has thrown them out the window entirely. In fact a customs agent in Honduras told us El Salvador was no longer enforcing the regulations. Due to this lack of clarity we tried to contact several El Salvadorian authorities on several occasions to clarify the situation, however none of them ever responded.
      As for some of your statements, you are taking a bit of liberty in interpreting what we said.
      - The lack of an LP guide was mentioned as nothing more than an illustration of the weak interest in travel to the country.
      - Most countries in Latin America allow 90 to 180 day Visas. I’m glad you think 90 days is REASONABLE for these 4 countries to share, but that is your opinion and you know what they say… never mind
      - Derogatory? Demeaning? I’m not sure you read the same post we wrote. Nowhere in this post are we derogatory or demeaning about ES. The only derogatory comment is regarding Mr. Smug and that is solely because his attitude earned it.
      - Arrogant? More Important? Nowhere do we say we expect different treatment. The fact that we are working journalists is mentioned solely because we DO indeed have something to offer the country that your average vacationer does not. Most other countries, including all of ES’s neighbors, have gone out of their way to assist us help them promote tourism in their country. EVERYONE wants to promote their tourism industry and letting journalists do their work is one of the most cost effective and efficient ways for a small country to do that.
      -As for the United States, that’s a whole different story. I am not proud of many of my country’s policies toward visiting foreigners and I have no doubt that it was the most complex and costly border crossing for you…BUT that has nothing to do with our post.

  5. I wonder how is tourism in El Salvador if they keep on going like that. I mean, they could get revenues and better economy with tourism but they seem to be so unwelcoming. Oh well… I wanted to see more of El Salvador too. You sure got a lot of road challenges ahead. I’ll always visit your blog. I love it! Very interesting and detailed.
    SonJu recently posted..YOYO GAMES: GAMEMAKER 8.1My Profile

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  7. After spending 10 years in and traveling throughout Central America I can honestly say that El Salvador is the most straight forward and uncorrupt country of them all. So it is sad to hear that this progress is expressed as negative in terms of tourism in your blog.

    The CA-4 format exists in other parts of the world where you have to cover much more territory in the same amount of time. In five days you would have been able to stay at the San Lorenzo Hotel in Suchitoto, as planned, and maybe even have your visa extended at the immigration offices in San Salvador.

    My advice for your current situation: drive to another border crossing and try your luck with a different immigration officer. Good luck on completing your Trans-Americas Journey.

  8. Ouch! Wow, that really is too bad…to miss out on your goal because of a really, REALLY ridiculous rule, an uncompromising officials. I will never understand why such a country would put such limits on tourism. We are going to be facing the same issues with the Schengen in having to leave most of the EU (90 days for 30 countries? Ridiculous).
    Dalene Heck recently posted..Foto Friday – Guinness LakeMy Profile

  9. That sucks, I hope you make it into El Salvador eventually. I would try a different entry point if I were you. If that’s even a possibility.
    I’m confused a little – what is the wait time for re-entry after the initial 90 days of the CA-4 has expired and you exit the region? In Costa Rica, foreigners can stay 90 days on a tourist visa, exit the country for (a minute to 72 hours, depending on who you talk to), and re-enter to get a new 90 day visa.
    Lack of information and the government official’s right to interpret the rules as they see fit is a huge problem here, too. Some perpetual tourists (term coined for expats or anyone renewing that 90 day visa) get turned away, fined, or receive extra special nice treatment. Depends on the border guard.
    This lazy interpretation of laws applies to every institution, not just borders. My car is currently being held for ransom by a customs official who is using a rule book from the 90s. The director of customs was sympathetic but unable to help, her rule book was from 2008. So we are stuck without the car for 90 days because we are not paying the bribe based on principle. *sigh*
    Erin in Costa Rica recently posted..Photo: The OMFG SunsetMy Profile

  10. Strange that you were getting mis-information on CA-4. When I just traveled through earlier this year, I met some surfers who were planning their “border runs.”

    When I crossed into El Salvador from Guatemala, a girl in our group had an issue at the border as well, but it was the Guatemala side. They were trying to tell her there was something wrong with her entry stamps to Guatemala and therefore El Salvador would not let her in. Of course she could “pay a fee,” and it would all be fine. It was totally made up, but she was fluent in Spanish, so they picked the wrong girl to mess with :-) We just moved on down the road to the El Salvador station, and they didn’t say a word.
    Stephanie – The Travel Chica recently posted..My First Taxi Crash in Buenos AiresMy Profile

  11. We had a similar problem on 18 July. We stayed in Nica for 4 months legally with a 90 day extension to our original visa. We asked the Nica immigration official if the extension was valid for all the ca-4 countries and he said yes. We left Nica for San Salvador on the Tica Bus and happily exited Nica and crossed through Honduras. When we tried to enter El Salvador we were hauled off the bus and told that we had no time left in the region. We were at first given the option of the $115 fine (and 5 days to exit the ca-4) or returning to Nica. We protested very politely that we had an extension and the official not so politely informed us that we no longer had the option of the fine and had to go back. This we did on foot at 21h00 which was not fun as you can imagine especially at a border as sketchy as El Amatillo. Luckily for us the Honduran migracion guy was super friendly and gave us 90 days more. Honduras gained our cash and El Salvador lost out. 7 years of constant travel and this is the first time we have been bounced. We did everything we could to ensure that we were legal

    WAKE UP EL SALVADOR !!! Don’t you want tourist dollars???

    On a side note how is it even possible to have a visa agreement (such as the CA-4) when the countries can not agree on who needs a visa to enter initially and who does not? e.g. A friend from the Dominican Republic recently wanted to visit Guatemala where she required a visa in advance. For whatever reason she was denied one when she applied and so decided to visit Nica instead where she does not need a visa in advance. On arrival in Nica she was given the same stamp as the rest of us which supposedly gives her 90 days in the CA-4 but she is not allowed into Guatemala. Brazilians were in the same situation with Honduras until the beginning of this year. This confused and disfunctional agreement needs to be dissolved now !!!

  12. OMG – I didn’t know about the CA-4 reg. What a ridiculous bureaucratic mess. But very typically Latin American, I’m afraid. I’ve bookmarked this article for reference for the day when I “do” El Salvador, which by all indications, is a spectacular tourist destinations. Sorry you had to miss it; I would have loved reading about it.
    Barbara Weibel recently posted..Capitol Rotunda, Washington, DCMy Profile

  13. We didn’t really realise that the 90 days was for all off the C4 countries until we had spent over 6 weeks in guatemala! We are now in El Salvador and are soon heading to nicaragua, but I think we will have to fly through there so we don’t overstay our limit!

    Do you know anything about extending the visa just for one country? ie. what we would like to do for nicaragua.

    :)
    Elise of Positive World Travel recently posted..Catching The Dengue…No It’s Not A TrainMy Profile

    • In the capitals of all the CA-4 I’ve been told it can be extended for another 30 or 90 days (I’ve heard differing opinions here) with a relatively expensive stamp. Surprisingly this stamp can also be had in Tegus (Honduras) even though the other C-4 now ignore Honduras’ “normal” entry & exit stamps.
      So long as you get into Nicaragua before the 90 days since entering Guatemala is up you’ll be fine. At that point you can either get the extension or make a run to Costa Rica which upon re-entering will give you another 90 days in CA-4.

  14. i have lived in honduras for 6 months with 1 border run so far to guatamala and had no probs with c4 in honduras or guatamala. in fact both borders were so friendly but we do speak fluent spanish and found other people that had problems with these borders. just extented for 1 more month in honduras, again no problems but heading to el salvador right on the last day of our visa extension. should we go nicaragua instead and avoid ES altogether or do you think nicaragua will have probs as well? we are going to tegus, is there a place there that we can check? would be greatful if anyone knows any info and super sorry to hear of any problems in this gorgeous region, we’ve been here for almost 12 months from mexico down and it’s been magic. would love to see ES though!

  15. I got hit for $150 by the migra man leaving Honduras at El Amatillo, I had the same day crossed from Nicaragua into Honduras without problems. My passport is always in order. The migra man clearly was scamming me. He pulled me into his crowded office and as if putting on a performance for the clerks, opening several texts. I loudly said I thought he was just trying to get my $. He said, if I didn’t like it I could call my embassy, and he pointed to a pay phone outside. Sure, I thought, they would be really helpful. I said, ok, if I don’t pay and just walk out, what will you do shoot me? He smiled and said, “No, but I’ve got your passport. You’re not going anywhere.” I realized then I had to pay him. I said I wanted a receipt and to see his ID and take his photo. He said it’s against the law for him to show his ID. I paid and went on to Salvador, where I’ve never had a problem. I think this Honduran was just a rogue. In 40 years of travel this was the first bad incident at a border.

  16. I feel the same way about The Honduras border.
    I crossed that border about one week ago and things in Honduras are so bad that I decided to get out of that country as soon as possible, I only spent about 36 hours In Honduras, at the beginning I was planning to stay a little bit longer perhaps 5 days at least, but I found so many police patrol on the road looking for excuses to see if they can get money from, but I had all my papers in order so they had to let go.
    I will stay away from this place.

    here is my website:www.myonewayhome.com

    Thanks
    Ossie

  17. its an unfortunate situation but you (unknowingly) broke the rules. protesting ignorance and saying things like “we are here to help” seems both patronising and arrogant to me.

  18. WAKE UP EL SALVADOR !!! Sorry to hear you two couldn’t see El Salvador. It is a tad ridiculous you can’t stay in Europe longer, especially with the amount of countries. To also demean the country’s recent history and social norms will not endear you to ES people should you ever actually come here, and I wonder how much of this was picked up at the border?
    Lindsay Taylor recently posted..Heather PenkoMy Profile

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