Perhaps we were getting too big for our britches, perhaps we had one too many drinks the night before, and perhaps we did not bother to sit down and seriously study the Honduran/Nicaraguan border crossing. But here is a lesson on what NOT to do.
I went back and forth on sharing this story… Primarily out of amateur overlander shame and secondarily out of scaring the crap out of our parents. But here at Home on the Highway we like to share the UPS and DOWNS of the adventure. So here it is!
NOTE: There are no pictures to this post. During stressful times the last thing running through your mind is, “OH I SHOULD SNAP A PICTURE!” Sadly, once you look back these are the times you wish you had documented it via photos.
We arrived at the “El Espino” border from Honduras into Nicaragua. We had glanced over some border crossing info the night before but feeling confident enough with our Spanish and our prior border crossing experience we did not bother to study. We roughly calculated it would cost around $50 to complete the crossing and had that amount in Honduran Lempiras. Mistake #1. ALWAYS CARRY EXTRA CASH AND CLOSELY RESEARCH FEES BEFORE HAND
We arrive to the frontier road and find a chain strung across it. A government official sits lazily in an old run-down shack nearby. We are instantly bombarded by touts (border helpers) but we are prepared for this and ignore them. I grab our paperwork and make a beeline to the government shack.
I hand over our paperwork over to the government official to check it out, he, in turn, immediately hands it over to some random dude in a T-Shirt who proceeds to run off with it. Mistake #2 NEVER LET YOUR PAPERWORK OUT OF SIGHT
I ask the government official, “What the hell?”
Government official explains that I must to use this guy to get the process done…
Sensing the worst, I immediately run after him to find our paperwork. I find him in a another dirt-floor shack that has been rigged up with a copy machine. T-Shirt guy is happily making copies of all our paperwork.
I demand it all back from him, he refuses explaining that he is the official in charge of this process. Not exactly wanting to get into a brawl at the border… I reluctantly pay the copy man $5! for a fistful of copies and we go back to government official in the shack whom I apparently need to get a stamp from to cancel my Honduran import permit to move on with the border crossing process.
The entire time I am yelling about getting my damn paperwork back, so now T-Shirt guy and government official are both perturbed that this gringo is rocking the boat. They start running a scam demanding some bullshit receipt we were supposed to have from purchasing the original car import permit into Honduras over 3 weeks ago.
I told them we received no receipt and obviously we have paid since we had a legitimate car import permit.
They explained that if I did not have the original receipt then I would have to pay again…. $40 (Originally it was $25 when I paid crossing into Honduras from Guatemala…)
Realizing we are now deep into scam territory I start some scamming of my own…
I explain… “Ummm… OK I am happy to pay for the new receipt but I do not have enough cash right now.”
I told the government employee that I needed his official stamp to move on with the process, to the next country where I could use an ATM. He reluctantly agrees and stamps our paperwork. He tells his T-shirt buddy to stay with us to make sure I come back and pay him. Great… a new friend!
I jump back in the truck, Lauren who has been listening to all this going down, gives me the “What the hell are you doing!?” look…
T-Shirt guy runs ahead of the truck with our paperwork. By the time I catch up with him he has had our passports stamped out of Honduras (I pay his friend $10 in bribes… for this) It is normally free and I know this but I am all flustered and not thinking clearly at the time.
After checking out our passports T-shirt guy goes to check the car import permit out of Honduras. For this he actually did come in handy since the office was closed for lunch, I guess he knows the people that work there since he banged on the door and someone came and got him. They went inside for a few minutes and came back with our stuff. The import official wanted a bribe as well, Worrying about my dwindling bankroll, I told him I didn’t have enough money but would come back later to pay…
We were now officially checked out of Honduras (Owing at least $60 in back-pay bribes) but now needed to check into Nicaragua.
At this point I now have T-shirt guy and 3 other touts following me around like sharks. I have screwed up. I am now a mark…
To enter into Nicaragua you are required to purchase car insurance and pay a per/person check-in visa fee. I needed to change my Honduran Lempiras into Nicaraguan Cordobas (Again, We did not check the exchange rate.. and lost about $5 in this process)
I pay the Nicaraguan customs guy for our visa stamps. He was actually very friendly and yelled at the touts to leave us alone.
We get our passports stamped and now our bodies are official in Nicaragua but the truck is still in limbo stuck between the 2 countries.
We need to buy insurance and get it inspected by customs to get the truck legally into the country.
Problem is after all Nicaraguan entry-fees, various bribes, and getting screwed on the exchange rate now we REALLY are tapped out of cash.
We do not have enough money to buy insurance AKA We cannot drive into Nicaragua.
This is when 3rd world shadiness comes in handy. I search around for a dude who sells insurance who also happens to know the Nicaraguan customs guy. I explain to him I do not have enough cash to buy insurance or pay for customs inspection. I need to get into Nicaragua to use an ATM and if he could help me I would pay him for his services.
So shady insurance guy writes us up an insurance policy and gets his customs friend to inspect my truck.
I tell shady insurance guy and customs guy that I will pay them for the insurance policy and bribes once I get some money.
OK. So now we have a Nicaraguan insurance policy, the truck is inspected and signed off by Nicaraguan customs. Our passports are officially stamped into Nicaragua. I have a long-line of people who are demanding payment for their “services”. Everyone involved is pissed off and I still have no money.
I talk with Shady insurance guy and he assures the angry mob (lead by damn T-Shirt guy from Honduras!) that he will go with me to the ATM and come back with money for everyone. He wants me to go on his motorcycle into town and leave my truck at the border.
I say “Screw that, You get in my truck and we will go into town together”
Lauren who is all kinds of pissed off at me and this whole situation now has to climb in the back and squeeze between all of our crap. The shady insurance guy gets in the front-seat of the 4Runner and we drive into Nicaragua…
We are are now driving in Nicaragua, the closet town with an ATM is about 20 miles away. Lauren and I are talking in English to each other trying to figure out if we are 100% legit in Nicaragua. I am wondering if maybe we need some other paperwork at the border.
We determine we do not need anything. If we were to kick this dude out of the car we would be 100% legal and all those other border scammers could go pound sand.
Now Shady Insurance guy was really the only dude who really helped me out, he fronted the $12 for insurance out of his own pocket. I did not want to screw him over completely.
We finally get to the ATM. I pull out cash, jump back in the truck and drive back down the road. We are headed back to the border. Shady insurance guy is totaling up all the money I owe the other scammers, It totaled up to $85, plus $12 for insurance.
Somewhere in between the border and the town I pull over the truck. Give the guy $20 and tell him to get out. He gives me a confused look and starts asking for more money.
I tell him that is all he is getting. He argues for a bit but then gives up and gets out of the truck.
We are finally 100% legal and alone in Nicaragua.
What a fuckin’ day.