After spending a great time in Guatemala where we had the confirmation of my pregnancy, we soon realized we did not have a lot of time left to complete our journey to the “Fin del Mundo”, Argentina. We had to make a few tough choices. One of them was to push through Central America at a faster pace than we initially anticipated.
After careful planning we departed to cross El Salvador and Honduras in couple of days, saving a few more days to enjoy Nicaragua before getting into Costa Rica. Honduras was a concern as the country was being hit by a wave of violent demonstrations against the government with strikes often resulting in roadblocks. Getting stuck in a roadblock with our windows open due to a malfunctioning air conditioning while being pregnant and crossing the country with the highest murder rate in the world was not something we were looking for.
We will not spoil the story but yes, we did manage safely at the end, even when things did not go as planned in Nicaragua. After all we ended up crossing these three countries in three days, which was a pity, but hey: sometimes it is what it is.
As usual before crossing we were warned about organized crime and gang violence, but this was no news. After carefully planning our route we reached the border with El Salvador. It was the easiest and fastest we ever experienced in the Americas. We didn’t have to pay any entry fee or truck fees. How nice for a change! The curious bit was that the border officers did not stamp our passports. Happy we went off to our first and only stop in El Salvador, Santa Ana, a town 50 km from the frontier where we have chosen to stay overnight at a small boutique hotel.
Since there were no camping spots on the way and it was super hot we thought it would be a good idea to book a hotel room with AC for a change. We have arrived at the hotel by mid-afternoon completely drained. The excessive heat, the border crossing anxiety and the stress of driving through a country with a reputation for being unsafe consumed us. Perhaps over cautious since we found out about my pregnancy. With little appetite to explore Santa Ana, we preferred to stay put and rest at the hotel for the rest of the day. Although we were the only ones there and the place was mostly going through renovations it was okay. We had dinner and prepared for our next border crossing into Honduras.
Staying at the hotel had its advantages: high speed internet on Wi-Fi, plenty of space and a stationary bathroom with as much water we wanted. It was certainly appealing especially because JP needed good internet. He was preparing his first work related teleconference with a middle eastern company. 6 months before the end of our sabbatical he was already starting to look for work... only JP :)) In my opinion it was too early, in his opinion it was necessary to start the process early to be able to get a job once we finished the journey.
I remembered how funny it was when he was trying to set up a decent background for the video. It was simply hilarious. The room was dark, no background looked professional or decent to show over there. There were no empty walls, always something hanging around. He finally set to do it, believe me or not, at the bathroom! Luckily the interview was postponed to the following day when we would be in Honduras. We had no idea where we would stop for the night over there, but considering the unrests in the news we had to start looking for a fenced hotel where we could park safely and enjoy some good internet. We called the day and rested.
The following morning we had a very simple breakfast and left to Honduras, not before withdrawing some US Dollars at a bank in Santa Ana.
We only had 280km from the hotel in Santa Ana until the border, but it took us more than 6 hours to reach Honduras due to the terrible road conditions, traffic jams and unruly drivers.
In El Salvador and Honduras there were no traffic rules applied. Most drivers would do whatever they pleased on the road. They would overtake on the right side, drive between lanes, overtake over bridges, drive over the shoulders, signaling was nonexistent, no seatbelts or helmets, 3-4 people on motorcycles, and so on. But the saddest thing was to witness people emptying full bags and bins of trash out of the window from their vehicles. Such a pity!
If in North America we could easily plan 500km drive a day, in this part of the world we had to adjust our range to maximum 250-300km a day due to the unpredictability of the road and traffic conditions.
Entering Honduras was more bureaucratic than entering El Salvador. The temporary importation process of the truck took long and was tedious. We had to pay $33 at a bank inside Honduras and return to the border to complete the process. So, we entered Honduras without our passports, waited at the bank to pay the fees, then went back to the border to process the paperwork and wait for the passport stamp. Makes no sense but it was what it was.
Once we were in Honduras, we had to drive only 50km to reach our hotel. When we entered the gates we realized it was very basic and mostly empty. The receptionist was kind and allowed us to choose our room since they were not the same nor properly arranged or cleaned. However the internet and the air conditioning worked, it was fenced, thus it would do for the night. By then it was late afternoon and we were very tired. So, once again we stayed in for the night. While JP arranged himself for his telecom I went inside the truck to prepare our dinner. We hadn’t eaten the whole day, just that simple breakfast we had at the hotel in El Salvador.
While we were having dinner silently inside the truck, there was this guy walking around the parking area with a shot gun in his hand. He walks upstairs and patrols the first floor seeming to search for someone. He had no uniform and was confidently knocking on the hotel doors while carrying a big gun. It felt like we were back in Nigeria, in Port Harcourt. I was thinking… “what is he doing? Who is this guy? He is either here to execute or rob someone” … As he disappeared on the first floor JP went to the reception to inform them about the guy. To our relief he was told that the man with the shotgun was the security guard. Gosh, he could at least wear a uniform or a badge. Relieved that all was okay, we continued silently our meal and went suspiciously to bed.
The next morning JP had his video-call which went better than we expected and soon after we departed towards Nicaragua. We were in a good conversation and time passed quickly. Excited to finish this section of our trip we approached the next border. In my mind I was already dreaming with the beaches of Costa Rica.
But before the nice beaches we had to deal with exiting Honduras and entering Nicaragua. And it became an ordeal. As we arrived at the Honduras side of the border the harassment started. People were offering insistently all sorts of services from currency exchange to peanuts, chargers and of course, the “border crossing facilitation service”. There was a large queue and there were “agents” that seem to have arrangements with custom officers to bypass the queue. It was so upsetting to see people going passed the line. We protested to no avail, nobody cared. The “mechanism” was established and deals were done. We felt we had no voice. Pity!
We knew Nicaragua border crossing would be more bureaucratic, so we prepared ourselves psychologically to wait longer than usual. However, we didn’t foresee what was about to happen. What was supposed to be an easy process became one of the worst nightmares of our trip: the truck inspection.
When the customs officer came to inspect our truck, just before all our documentation was processed, he discovered something that changed dramatically the course of events. The officer was almost done with his inside inspection and ready to give us the “go ahead”, when last moment, without being asked, JP opened a cupboard where we carried our drone. When the officer saw the drone, he immediately asked us what that was and then our nightmare started.
The man explained we are not allowed with drones in Nicaragua. We said we would not fly the drone. He said he had to report it to his boss. So he grabs the body of the drone and told us to follow him. When he walked into the office of the boss he said “look boss what I got for you". So the boss asked us if we knew that drones are not allowed and bla, bla, bla. JP replied that we did not know and offered himself to sign a statement or commitment that we would not fly the drone in Nicaragua. He said he could not accept. That we would have to either leave the drone at customs, return to Honduras with the drone or to pay a customs officer to come with us and the drone in custody until the border with Costa Rica, where the drone could exit Nicaragua with us. The last option would cost us USD 60 and we would have to transport the officer with us all the way to the next border.
What a pain! JP contested of course. We asked if we could destroy the drone. They said we could not destroy the drone. “If the drone is mine why can’t I destroy the drone?” JP was arguing. At that point he almost lost it as he can’t stand things that doesn’t make sense. Right… So JP finally agreed to leave the body of the drone behind with the customs officers and leave. No, we were not allowed. Besides the body of the drone where the engines and the gimbal are fixed, they wanted us to leave all the accessories, the helixes, the batteries, the remote control. The body doesn’t fly or work without the helixes and batteries, and vice-versa. Well, well. Now we started to be suspicious about their purpose. Was their objective to prevent the utilization of the drone in Nicaragua or they wanted to confiscate the drone for their own use? We couldn’t understand why they insisted so much to get the accessories of the drone too. When they started to brag about their new toy, for us it was clear: they wanted our drone for their own use. It was disgusting to hear them laughing and threatening us. So, we said we would return to Honduras and asked the drone back so we could post it ourselves to Costa Rica. Now their discourse would change, and even when we decided to go back to Honduras, they said the drone would be confiscated even if we would return.
At the end the only option we had was not to leave the drone with the corrupt officers, to pay the USD 60 custody fee and carry one of the officers with us all the way to the other side of the country until the border with Costa Rica. When JP asked for a receipt the USD 60 became USD 40. Then we spent hours processing the paperwork required for us to leave. They were probably taking long so we would give up and leave the drone behind or bribe them. It was a nightmare. A mess. But if they were looking for bribes, they were doomed. If there is one thing JP won’t do, is bribe.
And I personally believe they underestimated our experience with difficult border crossings. We were not intimidated, we were just angry. They wasted so much of our time!
Right, once we were done with the paperwork, we had to wait for the guy we would take with us to be ready. When he showed up he was just a kid, a rookie enlisted to the customs office. In the meantime, another guy approached us offering road insurance. JP was too drained and exhausted to deal with it, and although I made it clear we won’t buy because I knew it was not mandatory, JP didn’t want to delay any more our departure and bought the damn insurance. Whatever, it just wouldn’t end!
By this time, we were both exhausted. When the day was supposed to finish that’s when it started. It was about 4pm when we concluded our ordeal at Nicaragua side of the border. Soon outside would get dark and JP would have to drive for hours straight through Nicaragua until reaching the border with Costa Rica. We would not be complying with rule number #1 in overlanding: don’t drive at night!
So, the “custody” officer kid entered the truck and seated in the front, on the passenger seat, next to JP with a sealed box with the drone in it. As the truck is designed for 2 people, I had no other choice but to be in the back, alone. It was very risky to drive at night, so late, so long, adding to this my pregnancy, the tiredness, the stress, the heat, I had been that evening through hell and back. I could not stop thinking if something bad would happen to us. Anything could happen at that point as what we had to do was too risky. I tried to fill up my time with writing, reading, I was looking up the window for hours. JP drove continuously for 6 hours, without even stopping to the toilet. He gave the customs officer such a hard time throughout the trip. I could just hear him from the back of the truck yelling and venting out his frustrations about Nicaragua’s absurd system. The kid had almost no voice, I guess it was the worst trip he ever had carrying a drone in custody. He was unfortunate enough to be part of that corrupted system and we were too, unfortunate enough to be in that situation. The poor officer was consumed when he finally left the truck. He disappeared as soon as we got to the border, he didn’t even handed over the case to his colleagues. He was just gone. Eventually the driving nightmare ended and we reached Costa Rica border safe and sound, due to JP’s resilience and very good driving skills.
Wait, we were not done yet. We still had to finish the paperwork process to exit Nicaragua and enter Costa Rica before they would close for the day. Another unnecessary stress!
Exiting Nicaragua could become another night of terror when JP almost lost it when another Nicaragua custom officer asked to inspect the truck once again. JP asked: “My friend, do you want to inspect our truck again”?
“The Nicaragua customs officer wants to inspect my truck again!” JP thought.
"Listen my friend, I just carried your colleague here with me for the past 6 hours, and for the 8 hours before I had been dealing with your colleagues at the border with Honduras. So technically I haven’t been out of site or of customs jurisdiction since I left Honduras. So why the hell do you want to check the truck once again?” JP replied irritated.
But reading the reviews of the border exit I knew that was the procedure and I knew from experience that in a communist system we just had to do what they ask us to do. So I intervened and talked nicely with the officer, calmed JP down and mediated the situation. I showed him everything he asked, and he let us go without a through inspection. Just before finishing all the queuing and papers stamping the last “joke” of the day came from an illustrious officer that asked me the following question: “Are the people in Romania still wearing skirts?” I was blocked for a second, wondering what did he mean ?! Then I realized he probably associated Romania with Rome, and the Romans…"let me get out of here", I thought.
I smiled, he returned the papers signed, while JP was fuming in my back anxious to get out of there.
The moment we entered Costa Rica it felt a completely different world. We were welcomed nicely and professionally. We were told “Welcome to Costa Rica!” by the officers and got our car inspection and paperwork done in 7 minutes. It was 11:43pm when we finished, while the border would close at 11:45pm. Lucky! We couldn’t believe we had managed, that we were finally in Costa Rica, and utilized our last resources and energy to drive the next 20km to an overnight spot we had found on iOverlander.
We were aware that crossing El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua could be stressful, and even dangerous. But we had no idea it could come from a corrupt state mechanism or its bureaucracy. It was our second most unpleasant and stressful experience on the road. But at this time, we just wanted to forget Nicaragua, relax and enjoy everything Costa Rica had to offer. Pura Vida!