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I’m writing this in San Juan del Sur Nicaragua which will be our last stop in Nicaragua before heading for Costa Rica. At the end of the last post I thought I would start this one by talking about the border crossing into El Salvador but since then we have crossed into Honduras and Nicaragua and it’s better to summarise a little rather than speak about each one.
Essentially to cross a border with a motorbike you need to get your passport stamped out for country A then go to the customs building in country A and cancel your import permit after that cross the border into country B get your passport stamped and go to country B’s customs building to get an import permit. This all sounds pretty straight forward which it should be but this simple process has been wrapped in so much bureaucracy that on average we spend 3 to 4 hours completing it at each border. Although they punch information into a computer they still ask for three photocopies of things like the vehicle registration, your driving license, your passport (before and after being stamped by immigration!), and then after you receive paperwork from them they want photocopies of that too. Sometimes you might need a stamp on your permit from the police or the guy with a stamp who looks like a normal guy wandering around the border post… oh and don’t forget to make sure and get three copies of the permit before and after the stamp.
We just approach the border crossings with a relaxed attitude and don’t get stressed out by it all. Sometimes you make it to the front of a queue only to have a couple of guys come up and bash their way in on front of you stretching their arm as far as they can into the officials window waving paperwork in their face. These guys are the “helpers”, local guys who offer to do the process on your behalf for a price. They are so persistent when you arrive at a border crossing I can only compare them to a swarm of persistent flies that really want to land on your dinner and make you constantly wave your hand over it. Their main tactic is to tell you that it’s very hard to do the process and the officials will look for bribes. Usually their story also includes telling you that the guys on the border in the country that you’re going to are extremely corrupt, dishonest, and that we will surely get robbed by them too.
Saying no thank you is useless. My tactic now is to disarm them with their own game. When they tell me how dangerous and corrupt the impending border crossing is going to be I repeat the things they say to me with disbelief. They think they’re onto a sale then I tell them that all sounds great because I’m on an adventure and bribes, robbery and corruption are exactly the type of adventurous things I’m looking for and I can’t wait to try the process myself. I’ve managed to stave off a number of these helpers with that approach.
I should add that the only dishonesty or bad behavior we have found at border crossings has come from these helpers or the money changers. Official staff have always been professional and helpful and they do their best with the mess of red tape that their countries border crossing processes have evolved into. Sometimes they have a sense of humour too. We crossed the Nicaraguan border with Dave and Phil, Dave is from Australia and one customs officials (actually he was the guy with the stamp) noticed this. As we were standing at the counter waiting for our permits to be processed by his colleague he pulled up a chair next to her and proceeded to type something into the computer. He suddenly swung the monitor around and pointed at Dave then at the screen. He had gone to Google images and found a picture of a Kangaroo lying down on a beach posing like a woman in a bikini shoot. We all looked at each other and fake laughed not sure how to react. Then he swung the monitor back around typed something else and swung it back to us. Now there was a woman in a bikini with the kangaroo in the same picture. Fake laugh evolved to uneasy chuckle, we were beginning to wonder where this was going. Again the monitor went to him and he started typing. We all looked apprehensively at each other. The monitor was swung around, the official was now pointing at a picture of ABBA and pointing at Dave. We tried to explain that ABBA come from Sweden not Australia but before we made any headway the official had already started playing Fernando over the computer speakers from YouTube. The next hour was spent completing our paperwork to a backdrop of ABBA’s greatest hits.
Every time I write something for the blog I realise that it only represents 2% of what we have actually seen and experienced. There are countless more stories like this that I just don’t have time to tell in a blog post.
We had a great time in El Salvador. After crossing the border we drove straight to San Salvador to meet Mario and Fernanda who we ended up staying with for a few days. Months ago on a ferry going to Vancouver Island we met Sara and Dan two other motorcycle travelers who had already been through Central America and they are the ones who put us in contact with Mario and Fernanda. During our stay we visited the San Salvador Volcano and Mario’s coffee plantation. We also went on a couple of rides and I was able to change the oil in my forks at MotoRider San Salvador. Our host’s hospitality went above and beyond, one day Fernanda presented real German Wurst for lunch, she even cooked it in beer as she had checked with a local chef what way she should cook it best. After San Salvador we went to the beach for a few days where we relaxed a bit before heading for Nicaragua via Honduras.
The aim was to leave early and do two borders in one day which we managed to do in the end. It took roughly four hours to do the border crossing into Honduras then two hours to ride across it and another three hours to cross into Nicaragua on the other side of Honduras. Long day! By the time we reached the Nicaraguan border it was getting dark and we still had hours of processing ahead of us. As we were sitting down at customs a man walked over and said Mario’s name (Mario who we stayed with in San Salvador). At first I thought what a coincidence then it dawned on me that this is Bayardo a canyon guide from Nicaragua who Mario had recommended to us. I told Mario we were interested and heading to Nicaragua that day to check out the canyon. What I didn’t know was he had called Bayardo and told him to look out for us. We found out later that Bayardo had been waiting at the border for us for three hours before we arrived, he then waited until we cleared it and led us to his home, fed us and put us up for the night. The next day we hiked through the canyon for over four hours. I think the activity is called canyoning but in canyoning you have a wetsuit and a helmet, neither of which we had. It was a great experience.
We rode to Esteli next, a medium sized town which gave us a positive first impression of Nicaragua. Unfortunately this impression didn’t last. The rest of Nicaragua has a heavily worn tourist trail through the larger cities of Granada, Leon and San Juan del Sur. We didn’t feel like visiting Managua because we didn’t know anyone there and it’s known for having a high crime rate along with San Salvador and Guatemala City. In the end we chose to stop in Granada and San Juan del Sur. Both are disappointingly heavily influenced by American tourism and have no soul left at all. In Esteli when we walked or rode through the streets people acknowledged us with a smile, a thumbs up, or at least something along those lines. In Granada and San Juan the locals look straight through you as if you’re not there. In these tourist centres you feel more like a cash crop than a person. Much like the way a farmer takes care of his crop and harvests it, you don’t feel like you’re in danger in these cities because the locals know you’re a long term source of income but you are constantly being harvested for money when you spend time there. Prices were about double what they were in Esteli and the street sellers are pushy, they harass you to buy their product in English but often if you keep walking the English will turn to a Spanish phrase of which I’m sure is not a pleasant thing to say to somebody. I’m inclined to think that it frustrates them that they have to talk to their cash crop to get money from it. It would be much more convenient for them if they just had to walk up to us and shake us to make money fall out of our pockets.
If we had arrived in Nicaragua without having first visited so many other Central American and Mexican towns and cities we probably wouldn’t be that put off by it but as we have we can see that it completely contrasts what we experienced up to now. On the other hand I’m sure these tourist spots exist in all countries maybe it’s just harder to stay away from them in Nicaragua because it is so small (it looks big on a map but most of that is jungle, El Salvador actually has a larger population).
An odd fact about Nicaragua is that every time a local person approaches us when we’re with the bike they don’t ask where we came from or where we’re going, how long have we been on the road or where do we come from. The first question is always how much did your bike cost? I find it interesting that nobody ever asked that question before especially as a first question until now and pretty much at every encounter.
Although my observations on Granada and San Juan del Sur may seem negative we did encounter a friendly face in Granada in the form of an Irish ex-pat named Gerry. On our day of arrival Franziska was on foot walking around to some hostels looking for a room while I stayed with the bike. Luckily I had chosen to stop outside Casa del Agua which is a small guesthouse that Gerry owns. He was outside and saw the Irish flag sticker on my pannier. The conversation started with are you Irish? I said yes. Are you looking for a room? Yes. I’ll sort ye out. It turned out that he had taken a room off the roster for that day because some tiles in the bathroom needed to be regrouted. The grout was now dry so we got the room. Good investment that Irish flag sticker. Gerry moved to Nicaragua in 2009 during the economic downturn years and has since established Casa del Agua. If you’re in Granada we recommend staying there it is leagues ahead of anything else in the same price range.
Next we’re going into Costa Rica. The overwhelming response from everyone we speak to is that it is expensive there. We’ll check it out and let you know.