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Border Crossing 101: Sixaola, Costa Rica to Guabito, Panama

Crossing international borders in Latin America is rarely easy or pleasant (why do they always smell like pee and desperation?). Things are even more complicated when you’re driving across borders in your own vehicle as part of an overland road trip. These border crossing 101 travel tips will help you travel from Sixaola, Costa Rica to Guabito, Panama on the Pacific coast smoothly with or without a vehicle.

From: Sixaola, Costa Rica

To: Guabito, Panama

Sixaola River - Costa Rica, Panama border

The Sixaolo River marks the border between Costa Rica and Panama.

Lay of the land: Private vehicles are allowed to pass the line of parked and double parked commercial vehicles lining the road leading up to the border. Before you reach the bridge (you’ll be relieved to know that the dilapidated, one-lane death trap we had to cross has since been replaced with a shiny new bridge), park your car and go to the Costa Rican immigration booth on the right hand side immediately before the bridge. Fill out the form and hand it in with your passport for a quick and easy exit stamp. Enter the aduana (customs) office immediately to the right of immigration to either cancel (if you are not returning to Costa Rica or have used up all your days) or suspend (if you are returning to Costa Rica) your Costa Rican temporary vehicle importation permit.

Once the easy and efficient Costa Rica formalities are taken care of cross over the bridge.

old bridge Guabito, Costa Rica - Sixaola, Panama border

We drove across this bridge between Costa Rica and Panama, but you won’t have to. A new bridge has since opened.

Scary old Sixaola bridge Guabito/Sixaola border crossing

We drove across this bridge between Costa Rica and Panama, but you won’t have to. A new  bridge has since opened and this old bridge is just used by pedestrians.

On the Panamanian side of the bridge you pass through an automated fumigation sprayer. The next set of windows is immigration where you hand off your passport and get your entry visa. Then travel two doors down to get your entry stamp. Between these spots is the aduana (customs) office where you handle the temporary vehicle importation paperwork. However, before they will do anything they will direct you to the one and only insurance office where you need to purchase the mandatory liability insurance.  Once we’d purchased our insurance, the vehicle importation permit process was fast and easy and after a customs agent took a cursory glance at the contents of our truck we were on our way.

Our video, below, gives you a sense of what it was like to drive our truck across the rickety old bridge between Costa Rica and Panama before the new bridge was opened. Hold on.

Elapsed time: Just over two hours but if we hadn’t had to wait for the lone insurance saleslady to get back from her lunch break this would have been our fastest and easiest Central American crossing by far.

Fees: There’s a US$3 stamp per person entering Panama, no fee for temporary importation of the truck, a US$1 fee to fumigate the truck entering Panama and it was US$15 per month for vehicle liability insurance. That’s a grand total of US$22 for both of us and our truck.

Number of days they gave us: Humans get 90-180 days. Vehicles, on the other hand, get 30 days which can be extended in-country up to two times for a total of 90 days. You can extend your vehicle importation permit in Panama City or in Divisa, a tiny stop at a crossroads on the Pan American Highway about midway between David and Panama City. We extended in both locations and highly recommend doing it at the Divisa office if you can. Staff at the Panama City office did not know what they were doing and made mistakes that then had to be fixed by the very, very knowledgeable and helpful staff in Divisa. Even they seemed annoyed by the ineptitude of the PC staff.

Vehicle insurance requirements: You must buy local insurance before driving in Panama and it costs US$15 for 30 days. This can be only done at this border at a small desk upstairs in the entrance to a department store (ask your immigration agent where it is). They sell insurance in one month blocks with no discount for purchasing multiple months at the same time.

Where to fill up: Diesel was about 40 cents cheaper per gallon in Panama than it was in Costa Rica when we crossed so we waited to fill up on the Panama side of the border where diesel was US$3.92 a gallon.

Need to know: Panama is always one hour ahead of Costa Rica so you’ll need to change your watch. This next border crossing tip is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT FOR ANYONE DRIVING ACROSS: We were not aware until we arrived at the border that Costa Rica will renew a tourist visa if you spend 72 hours outside of the country (usually not enforced) but foreign vehicles are only allowed to be in Costa Rica for 90 days out of every 180. This means that once you use up or cancel your temporary vehicle importation permit you can’t get a new one for 90 days. Luckily, Costa Rican officials can “suspend” your temporary importation permit which puts it on hold until you return to the country at which time the clock starts ticking again with whatever amount of time you had left on your original permit.

Panama Costa Rica border

The new steel bridge between Costa Rica and Panama was under construction when we were at this border, just to the right of the death trap bridge which we had to drive across.

Duty free finds: The smattering of duty-free stores include a down-trodden department store and a couple of liquor stores that had limited selection but decent prices. You’re allowed to bring US$200 worth of alcohol per person into Panama with you.

Overall border rating: Excellent. This crossing point was smoothly run, hassle-free and relatively quiet–almost no commercial traffic and only a smattering of other foreigners.

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2013 – Best Adventures & Activities

This post is part 2 of 4 in the series Best of 2013

Welcome to Part 1 in our Best Of the Trans-Americas Journey 2013 series. Part 1 is all about the Best Adventures & Activities we enjoyed during the past year of travels on our little road trip through the Americas including SCUBA diving in Panama with a man named Herbie Sunk (true story), some truly adventurous jungle horseback riding in Costa Rica and paragliding over one of Colombia’s largest canyons. Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages of 2013 and Part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year.

First, a few relevant road trip stats: In 2013 the Trans-Americas Journey spent time exploring Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Ecuador through which we drove 8,546 miles (13,753 kms) spending US$2,400 on fuel and crossing four overland borders.

Now, in no particular order, here are the…

Best adventures & activities of 2013

Best thing we tried for the very first time: Paragliding really is the best way to appreciate Colombia’s Chicamocha Canyon which is one of the largest in the world. When Parapente Chicamocha (parapente is the Spanish word for paragliding) offered to take us up, up and away we said yes. Quickly. Before “I hate heights” Karen could change her mind. We arrived at the launch site with owner Sergio and a team of wing wranglers and pilots then stood around and watched  the birds waiting for them to catch thermals so we could too. Then we ran of the top of the hill (well, Karen dragged her feet a bit) and the thermals took us up a few thousand feet above the canyon floor. We spent about half an hour rising, circling, dropping and rising again over the canyon. Eric says the view was great. Karen never had her eyes open long enough to really appreciate it and her forearms are still sore from the death grip she had on her harness.

Eric took our GoPro up with him and our video, below, shows the gorgeous scenery and the thrill of flying during our paragliding adventure above Chicamocha Canyon in Colombia. Don’t miss the acrobatics Eric goes through just before landing…

Best controversial tour: Like many Colombians we struggle to find a middle ground between Pablo Escobar fascination and Pablo Escobar revulsion. When we got an assignment to write an SATW award-winning piece about Pablo Escobar tourism in Colombia for the awesome travel/food/sports/world journalism site RoadsandKingdoms.com we booked one of the half-dozen or so Pablo Escobar Tours offered in Medellin, Colombia. We’re still struggling to find a healthy middle ground when it comes to this narco terrorist (pictured below during a rare and short-lived stint in jail), but taking the controversial Pablo Escobar tour helped a little bit thanks to a guide willing to share personal stories and his own struggles with Escobar’s legacy.

Selling Pablo Escobar - Roads 7 Kingdoms & Slate magazine

Best SCUBA diving: The water around Panama’s Coiba National Park (which used  to be a penal colony and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is full of rocky formations and sea mounts which attract the big stuff like sharks and rays. We spent two days SCUBA diving in the area with Herbie Sunk (real name) who is the owner of Scuba Coiba based out of Santa Catalina. There was lots of current and not much viz when we were there (March) but we still had a ball and even in the less-than-perfect conditions we could appreciate these unique dive sites. On the surface we saw dolphins, leaping mobula rays, bobbing turtles and even a whale shark.

SCUBA diving with Manta Rays - Coiba National Park, Panama

Best horseback riding: If you’re gonna call it “Adventure Horseback Riding” and charge US$60 for 2.5 hours you’d better deliver. Selva Bananito Eco Lodge & Preserve on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica did just that with super sure footed horses, varied and challenging terrain and even a boa constrictor sighting (there she is, below). This is not a ride for beginners, as we found out one heart-pounding, thrill-packed, fabulous afternoon.

Boa Constrictor - Selva Bananito Eco Lodge, Costa Rica

Best nearly deserted wind sport beach: Cabo de la Vela in the Guajira peninsula of northern Colombia is hard to reach and hot as hell but it’s also one of the best places in the region for wind sports as our traveling companion at the time, an avid kiteboarder who travels with not one but two kites, verified. As we sought the shade on shore he spent hours in the water (that’s him kiting, below) and raved about the consistently kiteable winds and the often deserted water.

Guajira Kite Surfing -  Cabo de la Vela, Colombia

Best white knuckle landing: Any time you get into a small plane you know that take off and landing are going to be extra exciting. Still, we weren’t quite prepared for the fly-straight-at-the-mountain-bank-hard-then-drop-straight-down-onto-the-“runway” landing that the pilot of our Air Panama flight artfully made into the dinky, waterside Playon Chico airstrip in Panama. The extra gray hairs were worth it, however, since this is the only way you can get to Yandup Island Lodge where we learned a lot about the area’s Kuna people, the largest indigenous group in the country.

Fasten your seat belts, stow your tray tables and check out this epic landing in our video, below.

Best festival: We attended/survived our first Carnaval (aka Carnival) in 2013 and while annual celebrations in Rio and New Orleans hog all the limelight we’re here to tell you that the festivities in Las Tablas, Panama hold their own with gorgeous, dueling, foul-mouthed Carnaval Queens, relentless water cannons during the day and fireworks that approach the noise, mayhem, and danger levels of a combat zone at night.  Go inside the madness of this five-day non-stop mega-party in our series of posts about Carnaval 2013 in Las Tablas, Panama.

Calle Abajo queen pollera carnival Tuesday night

Best border crossing adventure: Going from Panama to Colombia (or vice versa) may be the most difficult overland border crossing in Latin America. Shipping our truck from Panama to Colombia was an adventure in and of itself. This border crossing also lead to an enjoyable adventure when we got on board a sailboat and spent five days sailing through the postcard-perfect San Blas Islands (below) from Panama to Cartagena, Colombia where we reunited with our truck. Blue, blue water. White, white sand. Dolphin escorts. Even our open-water passage into Cartagena went pretty smoothly.

Sail San Blas Islands, Panama aboard MS Independence

Best difference of opinion: You can choose to explore the Panama Canal on a small tourist boat during a partial transit trip, which takes five hours and travels through three of the six locks, or during a full transit trip, which takes more than eight hours and gets you through all six locks traveling from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean (or vice versa). ONE of us had his heart set on the full transit from ocean to ocean. The other one of us spent the day wondering when the boat ride and subsequent interminable bus ride back to Panama City would end. Adventure really is in the eye of the adventurer. One man’s awesome day is another woman’s hostage crisis.

Our adventure/hostage crisis on the Pacific Queen booked through Adventure Life resulted in one awesome time lapse travel video, below, that will take you from ocean to ocean through the Panama Canal in just 10 minutes.

Best milestone: 2013 was also the year that finally entered the Southern Hemisphere when we crossed the equator in Ecuador as the photo of our Garmin GPS, below, proves.

0 latitude - Crossing the Equator - Equador

 

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Border Crossing 101: Nicaragua to Peñas Blancas, Costa Rica

Crossing international borders in Latin American is rarely easy or pleasant (why do they always smell like pee and desperation?). Things are even more complicated when you’re driving across borders in your own vehicle as part of an overland road trip. These border crossing 101 travel tips will help you cross from Nicaragua to Peñas Blancas, Costa Rica smoothly with or without a vehicle.

From: Peñas Blancas, Nicaragua
To: Costa Rica
Date: December 21, 2011

Lay of the land: The differences between the poorest nation Central America (Nicaragua) and one of the most prosperous (Costa Rica) are stark at the border they share at Peñas Blancas. The Nica side, though pleasant and orderly, is dusty and peppered with sandal sellers, money changers and stray dogs. And don’t expect to find anything to eat. The Costa Rican side just got even nicer with the opening of a new air conditioned immigration hall. Though people entering Costa Rica in their own non-Costa Rican vehicles still have to run around between three different locations to handle customs formalities for their vehicles. The La Frontera Cafeteria on the Costa Rica side seems popular. There’s a BCR mobile ATM on the Costa Rica side as well and it does not charge a fee and will dispense dollars as well as Costa Rican colones. Big rigs can get backed up for miles on either side of this border. If you’re driving your own vehicle you are allowed to cut the line in front of them.  But drive carefully. This is a two lane road so passing the parked big rigs means driving against traffic in the wrong lane. Go slow and always be ready with an escape plan that allows you to merge back in with the parked big rigs if a bus or other vehicle needs to get through in the oncoming lane.

Elapsed time: It only takes around 15 minutes to cancel your visa, cancel your vehicle importation documents and exit Nicaragua unless you end up at the border with tour buses or try to cross near Christmas or Easter. Note: even though you’re leaving the country officials may still want to look inside your vehicle. It took us about an hour to clear the Costa Rican side of the border, mainly because of truck paperwork which requires visiting a few different offices.

Fees: There’s a US$1 per person fee to leave Nicaragua. On the Costa Rica side there’s no fee at all for people to enter. We paid nearly US$17 for 90 days of mandatory vehicle liability insurance for the truck. We also paid US$6 for vehicle fumigation, though when we crossed this border again most recently they seem to have stopped fumigating.

Number of days they gave us: Costa Rica issues a 90 day tourist visa. We were also given a 90 temporary importation permit for our truck. Both are free.

Vehicle insurance requirements: Costa Rica requires that all vehicles buy liability insurance (see fees, above).

Where to fill up: Gas (and everything else) is cheaper in Nicaragua. Note, the nearest gas station on the Nicaraguan side is in Rivas about 35 km before the border.

Need to know: Even though tourists visas can be renewed for an additional 90 days by simply leaving Costa Rica for 72 hours then returning, foreign vehicles are only allowed to be in Costa Rica for 90 days out of every 180. You can “suspend” your temporary vehicle importation when you drive out of the country. This means that whatever time was left on your importation when you left the country will be available to you when you drive back into Costa Rica. But if you want to get a new 90 temporary importation permit your vehicle has to be out of Costa Rica for at least 90 days.

Duty free finds: There are a handful of duty free shops on the Nicaraguan side of this border. Most offer the same price on Nicaragua’s Flor de Cana rum but you can buy Flor de Cana cheaper in supermarkets in Nicaragua. Stock up on that here since it’s MUCH more expensive in Costa Rica. We also found a bottle of Reserva de Familia super aged tequila in one of the duty free stores on the Nica side where they were selling it at very, very good price of US$89. There are no duty free shops on the Costa Rican side of this border.

Overall border rating: We’ve now crossed the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica at Peñas Blancas  four times (with more to come) and it’s always been relatively efficient and free of corruption or bribery.Even the money changers and kids offering to help you with your paperwork on the Nica side aren’t too persistent.

New Costa Rica to Nicaragua border crossisng (updated)

A new border crossing between Costa Rica and Nicaragua over the Rio San Juan which forms part of the border between the two countries is scheduled to be open in 2014. However, this is Central America and 2015 seems more likely especially since these two countries have ongoing border issues tainted by accusations of territorial expansionism. We wouldn’t have believed this crossing was even real if we hadn’t seen a well-under-way “Santa Fé Bridge” over the Rio San Juan when we visited the area. This $30 million Japanese-funded project began in 2012 and, when completed and opened, this new route will be a much more direct way of heading north or south, by-passing the coastal mountains of Costa Rica and the chaos of Managua, directly linking central Nicaragua with central Costa Rica. This should also alleviate much of the truck backup and craziness at the overburdened Peñas Blancas border, currently the only land border connecting these two countries. In preparation for the opening of this border crossing the notoriously slow and rough 60+ mile (100 km) section of road heading into San Carlos, Nicaragua from Managua, which used to take several hours, has been upgraded into one of the best roads in Central America with perfect pavement, multi-lanes and (for the moment) very little traffic.

Rio San Juan Bridge - Costa Rica Nicaragia border

Construction of the “Santa Fé Bridge”, a US$30 million dollar Japanese-funded project that will span the Rio San Juan and create a new, easier border crossing between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. This is what it looked like when we were in the area in December of 2012. Officials say this crossing could be open in 2014.

 

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Borderland Basecamps – San Ignacio, Cayo District, Belize

Trust us when we tell you that most towns located within 30 minutes of a border crossing are best seen in your rear view mirror. Not so with San Ignacio. Sure it’s a border town. It’s less than 30 minutes from the Benque crossing into Belize from grimy Melchor on the Guatemala side. But despite its proximity to the  border, San Ignacio is one of the more appealing towns in Belize with more Caribbean charm (festive colors, wooden bungalow architecture, creole accents, a languid pace) and less of the squalor of most towns in Belize.

 

Budget hotels in San Ignacio

San Ignacio also offers a range of budget accommodation options–a refreshing surprise in Belize which can sometimes be too pricey if you’re on a travel budget. We stayed at Nefry’s Retreat which has four peaceful, clean rooms with WiFi and A/C for around US$20. Not a rock bottom price, but it’s value for money. Located about a five minute walk from the bustle of the town’s main drag, we really liked the homey feel too.

Tattered Caribbean charm in San Ignacio, Belize.

 

Under construction when we were there (but open now) was a brand new very budget-friendly dorm WITH A/C located above the Mayawalk Tours office on the main street through town. The tour company has also added a new restaurant. Speaking of eating, be sure to have breakfast at Pop’s. This tiny diner-like institution is affordable and tasty but most of all it’s a magnet for the locals who sit around and gossip. Plus the coffee just keeps on coming…

One of the nicest pools in the area is tucked amidst private cottages in the back of the sprawling property at Windy Hill Resort. The infinity edge pool is on a small hill which means you get stunning views while you cool off. The 25 cottages  at Windy Hill are not fancy, but they are solid value for money in the mid-range and perfect for groups, families or couples after a bit of privacy.

We liked owner Bob Hales right away, in part because he and his wife are from New Orleans. Even though it’s been years since they’ve lived there he still has his southern charm intact. We also like the love they’ve poured into this place, building it up from nothing but jungle over the past 25+ years. Opened in 1987, it was one of the first lodging options in the area. We were selfishly sad to learn that Bob has the place up for sale and we can only hope any new owners can manage to follow in his footsteps.

Oh, if the name Windy Hill sounds familiar that may be because one of the prizes on The Amazing Race was a week-long stay at the resort.

 

Jungle chic at Ka’ana Boutique Resort

 

Our room at Ka’ana Boutique Resort in Belize.

 

Now for the very top end, which is surprisingly high. Ka’ana Boutique Resort manages to give the look and feel of the world’s chicest jungle lodges without the remote location (it’s just a few miles from town on the main paved road). The resort is owned by a very interesting group of shockingly young guys, one of whom has managed some of the best properties in Belize (Francis Ford Coppola’s Turtle Inn, for example).

The ambitious owners created a very world class design-centric boutique hotel with all the bells and whistles: great restaurant, wine cellar, festive bar, freshwater pool, a roster of top-notch tours and a full-service spa that also offers the unusual and powerful services of a Mayan Shaman who puts her intuitiveness, spiritual training and very strong hands to work after conducting a brief but revealing interview with you to determine what parts (physical and emotional) need her attention most.

 

Mahogany Hall southern plantation house, Belize style

 

The Mopan River rushing by in front of Mahogany Hall Boutique Resort in Belize.

 

Another luxe option in the nearby village of Bullet Tree Falls is Mahogany Hall, where the combination of  sweeping and imposing architecture, polished wood and ample breeze and its location on the banks of the  Mopan River give it a distinctly Southern plantation feel. That’s no accident. The gregarious owner is from the South. If you’re lucky he’ll take you tubing down the Mopan. Delicious.

No matter where you choose to set up your basecamp, be sure to book a few nights because San Ignacio is the gateway to a host of outdoor adventures in the area including the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave, the Mountain Pine Ridge Area which includes the Caracol archaeological site, Barton Creek Cave, butterfly farms, horseback riding, wonderful hiking and more.

An exciting new development in the area is access to a brand new cave. Called Offering Cave, local operators told us the cave is an even more spectacular version of the ATM cave with its own ritual remains of ancient Mayan ceremonies and gorgeous cave formations. Tours should be available now.

 

Mayan ruins on your doorstep

 

What remains of what the Mayans built at the Xunantunich archaeological site in Belize.

 

There are even a couple of very local Mayan sites. We never made it to Cahal Pech but we did spend a couple of hours at Xunantunich archaeological site, just a short taxi ride from town. The name of this Mayan city, believed to be from the Classic period (200-900 AD), means stone woman in reference to a female ghost that’s said to wander around the place and into the stone walls. We were looking for her but we never saw her.

What remains of what the Mayans built at the Xunantunich archaeological site in Belize.

 

Xunantunich is a compact site with pleasant grounds and a handful of excavated structures–enough to pass a pleasant couple of hours and a great place to hang out (probably alone–except for the Stone Woman) on top of a temple and enjoy the park-like atmosphere.

What remains of what the Mayans built at the Xunantunich archaeological site in Belize.

Plaza 2, part of what remains of what the Mayans built at the Xunantunich archaeological site in Belize.

“Big truck” was all the ferryman said as we drove onto his tiny ferry for a ride across the Mopan River on our way to the Xunantunich archaeological site in Belize.

 

Big truck. Small ferry. See how that worked out in our video, below.

 

 

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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 where we were met with access denied. 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.

 

CA-4 Visa 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 unrecognized 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.

 

Travel 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.

Read more about travel in El Salvador

 

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