Border Crossing 101: Ocotopeque, Honduras to El Poy, El Salvador

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 Ocotopeque, Honduras to El Poy, El Salvador smoothly with or without a vehicle.

Date: October 4, 2011

From: Ocotopeque, Honduras

To: El Poy, El Salvador

Honduras Immigration Sign

“Bad attitudes prohibited here” – good advice in the immigration office on the Honduran side of the border.

Lay of the land:  This small, dusty crossing is relatively quiet except for occasional waves of 18 wheelers, mostly transporting beer and liquified gas. If your papers are in order (see CA-4 visa warning, below) the agents here keep things moving at a nice clip unless you arrive at lunch time when you can expect to wait at least an hour. Just beware of the scuzzy bathrooms and, apparently, cholera-filled water (check out the creepy warning poster in the ladies room, below).

Colera sign at  El Salvador Border

“Water with cholera!!! You can end your life!” – scary advice in the ladies room on the El Salvador side of the border.

Elapsed time: 1 hour (mostly spent dealing with the truck which entailed listening to the chatty customs agent who was bored and curious and thrilled to have someone new to talk to)

Fees: None. Amazingly, personal entry is free, there was no fee for the temporary importation of our truck either and no fumigation to pay for. This was our first totally free border crossing south of the US. We could get used to this…

Number of days they gave us: When entering El Salvador at an overland border crossing you don’t get a visa, permit or passport stamp. We walked away with no record in our passport of when we’d entered El Salvador or when we were supposed to leave. But that doesn’t mean you can stay as long as you want. El Salvador upholds the CA-4 Border Control Agreement which means you can stay in the region (Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador) for up to 90 days total. Note that if you fly into El Salvador you will be given an entry stamp on arrival as this will be considered your point of entry into the CA-4 region.

Vehicle insurance requirements: There was no place to purchase insurance at the border and we were never asked to provide proof of insurance.

Ruined car El Salvador border

Luckily, we did not have to abandon our truck at the border like the owner of this vehicle, parked right in front of the immigration office, obviously did.

Where to fill up: Fuel is a few cents cheaper on the El Salvador side of the border.

Duty free finds: You’re kidding, right? Shopping at this border is limited to spectacularly greasy pupusas, the national dish of El Salvador, warm beer or minutes for your cell phone.

Need to know: This is not a 24-hour border.

El Poy - El Salvador, Honduras border crossing

Approaching the El Poy border into El Salvador.

CA-4 warning: In 2006, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras joined together to create the so-called CA-4 (Central American 4) group of countries all honoring and enforcing one CA-4 visa governed by rules spelled out in the CA-4 Border Control Agreement.

Tourists are allowed to spend up to 90 days in total in any combination of the four participating countries. The clock starts ticking on your CA-4 visa the moment you step foot in any of the CA-4 countries.To complicate things further, in 2009 Honduras stopped honoring CA-4 regulations and started issuing its own 90 day visa. This means you can now spend 90 days in the other three CA-4 countries then enter Honduras and receive a new 90 day visa for that country.

But be warned: Honduras is completely surrounded by other CA-4 countries and, unless you fly, the only way out is overland. This requires entering one of the other CA-4 countries which still abide by the 90 day limit starting when you first entered Central America. If you’ve used the 90 days Honduras give you, you will not be allowed to enter another CA-4 country without paying a hefty fine for a transit visa.

This is exactly why El Salvador wouldn’t let us in the first time we tried to cross this border.

Overall border rating: This crossing is relatively hassle free and easy-going as long as you have time on your CA-4 Visa. What this border lacks in services it makes up for in dust, filth, half-dead dogs and long-abandoned vehicles.

Welcome to El Salvador

 

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Photo Essay: Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

The Golden Gate Bridge, which spans San Francisco Bay, turns 75 this year. This iconic bridge has inspired poets, film makers, photographers and musicians for decades with its signature color (drably called International Orange), its sweeping suspension design and its ever-changing wardrobe of fog and sun.

Golden gate bridge - Fog

Golden Gate Bridge

Eric has photographed the heck out of the Golden Gate Bridge and the occasion of its 75th birthday seemed like the right time to share a few shots.

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

The birthday of such a bridge inspired two very different brand new musical tributes. Mickey Hart, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and former drummer for the Grateful Dead, composed a “musical soundscape based on the real sounds of the bridge.” 

Listen to a live recording of the Mickey Hart Band performing the composition at the Golden Gate Bridge 75th Birthday Celebration at Crissy Field:

Decades ago Hart tried to scale the bridge to record sounds made by the structure which he calls a “giant wind-harp.” He was promptly arrested. Twice. This time things went more smoothly and Hart and his team capture the sounds they were after. Hart performed his composition as part of the Golden Gate Bridge’s birthday bash by playing a 27 foot stainless steel replica of the bridge which was built by engineers at San Francisco’s awesome Exploratorium

Golden Gate Bridge sunset

Golden Gate Bridge

Meanwhile, James Kellaris, a University of California marketing professor and “part-time” musician, won a contest put on by the San Francisco Mandolin Orchestra (who knew there was such a thing?) to compose a birthday song for the bridge.

He composed a mandolin ditty he calls “Chrysopylae Reflections,” referencing the Greek term “chrysopylae” which, according to Kellaris, means “golden gate.” Who are we to argue with a man with a mandolin?

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge Fog

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden gate Bridge panorama

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge - sunset

 

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Rear View Mirror: Honduras Travel Tips After 89 days in the Country

Honestly, Honduras has not been our favorite country in Central America. It lacks the culture and food of some of its neighbors and some of the roads really do suck. Still, the Copán archaeological site totally lived up to the hype and after 89 days traveling in the country we uncovered other highlights too like an awesome microbrewery and the best national park infrastructure and camping in the region. Here are our Honduras travel tips so you can hit the ground running.

Honduras travel tips

Salva Vida Beer, HondurasThe most commonly found Honduran beer is called Salva Vida which means “saves lives” in Spanish. That’s indisputably an awesome name for a beer. However, the stuff doesn’t hold a candle to the fantastic small-batch beer being made at Sol de Copán, Honduras’ only microbrewery.

If you think all Spanish is created equal, think again. Every Spanish-speaking country we’ve been to has put its own slangy, subtle twist on the language. For example, snacks, called boquitos or antojitos in the other Spanish-speaking countries we’ve traveled in, are called golosinos in Honduras. And tiendas (small stores) are called pulperias.

A friendly, soft whistle often takes the place of saying hello. It’s charming once you get used to it.

 

 

Honduras went through a coup in 2009. It’s a piece of turbulent, recent history that’s worth understanding and we can think of no better crash course than this smart, cool comic strip about the coup. It will explain everything quickly and easily. Honest.

Before the coup in 2009 (see above) Honduras issued traveler visas governed by the CA-4 Border Control Agreement which restricts travelers to 90 days total in any combination of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras or Nicaragua. After the coup Honduras has suspended CA-4 rules, issuing its own visas without regard for the amount of time you’ve spent in other neighboring countries. This is not a problem if you’re only visiting Honduras. But be advised that El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua still count your time in Honduras against the 90 days allowed under CA-4 regulations. This discrepancy is what lead to our problems at the El Salvador border.

Lempira Day Parade - Gracias, Honduras

The Lempira Day Parade in Gracias, Honduras was a cultural highlight of our time in the country.

 

Generally speaking, the toilet paper in Honduras is WAY nicer than in Guatemala or Mexico. Even in cheap rooms it’s quilted and everything.

Most purchases incur a 12% sales tax on top of already barely-bargain prices. It’s just not as cheap in Honduras as you think.

Prices are rarely displayed on gas station signs, which only adds to the sticker shock. We paid more than US$4 a gallon for diesel and gasoline is even more expensive.

Honduran license plates say: cuidemos el bosque (protect the forest) even though they don’t really.

Stela A - Copan, Honduras

Stela A at the rightfully famous Copán archaeological site in Honduras.

You can practically drink what passes for “hot sauce” in Honduras.

Don’t be surprised if you ask for directions and the person you’re speaking to purses his lips and juts his chin in a vague direction. It looks like he’s blowing a kiss, but he’s actually trying to tell you where to go.

Cops in Honduras are sticklers about seat belts (we love this) and will also pull you over to make sure you’re carrying reflective triangles and a fire extinguisher in your car. Both items are required by law in Honduras and much of Latin America. Also required by law is a front and back license place and they didn’t like our lack of a front plate but they never hassled us about it.

Highlights: Copán archaeological site, Gracias de Dios, Sol de Copán beer and the infrastructure and camping area at Cerro Azul National Park

Skip it: Roatán  Island

Roatan white sand beaches - West End

The white sand beaches of Roatán Island in Honduras are at risk from all-inclusive resorts and increasing numbers of cruise ship passengers.

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Producing Puros – Plasencia Cigar Factory, Danlí, Honduras

Some of the most famous tobacco in the world is grown in southern Honduras, all of it from tobacco seeds originally brought from Cuba. Here, cigars, called puros in Spanish, are made by hand and there are a number of cigar factories near the town of Danli that you can tour.

We pulled into the Plasencia cigar factory which was started by Cuban immigrant Nestor Plasencia. Within moments a man named Hector, who appeared to be the head of the entire operations, emerged from his office, popped a cigar into his mouth and lead us to the factory. Hector enthusiastically showed us around the whole facility explaining the process from seed to cigar. The photos, below, take you through that process.

But first, a few staggering stats

2 years: length of time it takes for a tobacco seed to be transformed into a cigar

120: number of hands that touch every single cigar from farming to finished product

4,000: number of people employed by Plasencia

30 million: estimated number of cigars produced by Plasencia factories each year, mostly on contract for more than 30 different brands including world-famous names like Rocky Patel cigars

90: percentage of those cigars that are exported to the United States

Step 1: sorting and bundling

Picked tobacco leaves arrive at the Plasencia factory and are sorted into various quality categories. Sorted leaves are then tied into small, neat bundles.

Tobaco

Tobacco sorting - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

Green Tobacco - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

Step 2: stacking and fermenting

The tied bundles of sorted tobacco leaves are tightly stacked in vast warehouses and allowed to naturally ferment for up to a year. Fermentation ultimately enhances and polishes the taste and aroma of the tobacco, but the process produces an overwhelming amount of ammonia inside the warehouses where ventilation and even face masks are important safety measures. At times it really was hard to breathe.

Tobacco fermentation - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

Tobacco fermentation - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

Tobacco sorting - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

Tobacco grading - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

Step 3: stripping

Once the tobacco leaves have fermented women expertly strip out the central vein so the tobacco burns evenly.

Tobacco stripping - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

Tobacco - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

Step 4: rolling

A finished cigar is made up of three different types of tobacco leaves incorporated in three different stages.

Cigar filler & binder leaf - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

The main part of the cigar is called the filler. This is bundled together and placed inside a tobacco leaf called a binder because it holds all of the filler together. These rough tubes of tobacco are placed into wooden cigar-shaped molds which press them together, forcing the tubes to hold their shape.

Cigar ready for rolling - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

The pressed and molded tobacco tubes are then neatly rolled into a tobacco leaf called a wrapper.

Cigar rolling - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

Cigar rolling - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

Cigar rolling - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

Cigar rolling - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

Voila! Finished cigars.

Cigar rolling - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

Step 5: warehousing

The Plasencia factory can produce tens of thousands of cigars per day in all shapes, sizes, strengths, flavors and brands. We’re still not sure how they keep them all straight.

Cigar - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

Cigar sorting - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

Rectangular Cigars - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

Step 6: labeling and packaging

The Plasencia factory makes cigars on contract for more than 30 different brands (their only in-house brand is called Flor de Honduras). Each brand has its own label which has to be applied before they’re packaged and shipped.

Cigar labeling - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

Rocky Patel Cigars - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

Cigar packaging - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

Rocky Patel Cigars - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

Shipping Cigars - Plasencia Cigars Factory Tour - Danli, Honduras

 

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