As much as I don’t want to keep a schedule on the trip, time was moving on and I needed to also. I plan to spend Christmas with old friends in Costa Rica, so needed to get moving again. That means travelling down through El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and then into Costa Rica. But lets not get ahead of myself: Here’s your 1 Man 2 Wheels El Salvador update.
After ducking out of a chance to adopt a Guatemalan family, it was a quick forty five minute run to The El Salvador border. The further south I go, the more complex and difficult border crossings become.
Partially this is due to the amount of paperwork required to cross, especially if you cross with a vehicle, and partly because the physical setup of the borders tends to be very chaotic. Feeding off of this confusion, a cottage industry of “helpers” thrives on the border. These people are self-appointed, promising to guide you though the process for a “tip”. In practice they are basically thieves who, once having possession of your documents, will try to extort you for their return. Or they are in cahoots with the border officials and both will try to squeeze a bribe out of the confused, frustrated traveller.
I’ve been researching this trip for years now, and read many horror stories on the internet of folks being fleeced by the helpers. I would do my best to not let it happen to me.
I really didn’t know I was at the border until I got there, if you know what I mean. Sign-posting is very poor, and the first inkling I had that I was at the frontier was a line of trucks and random guys on motorcycles riding alongside me and screaming for me to stop or in some cases to follow them. Of course I ignored them until I got to the head of the line and had to stop for the first official. Then my pursuers came up and said that they “worked for the government” and would help me get across. I still ignored them but they followed me anyway. I guess we are both stubborn!
Eventually they lost interest and I went about my business, which was, roughly summarised:
Get and exit stamp out of Guatemala on my passport
“Export” the motorbike out of Guatemala (i.e. cancel the temporary vehicle import permit)
Get myself stamped into El Salvador
“Import” the motorbike into El Salvador (i.e. get another temporary vehicle import permit)
Steps 1 through 3 went swimmingly and all I needed to do was process the bike in to El Salvador and I was good to go. Unfortunately at some point in step 2 I failed to get a “second stamp” on my import permit cancellation. This created a problem for the El Salvador border officials and left me in a sort of legal limbo. They summed it up like this:
“Sir, you are legally in El Salvador but your vehicle is not as it lacks the necessary documentation. Regretfully we have no choice but to rescind your entry until such time as all your documentation is in order”
In effect they banished me back to Guatemala. Damn! I’m only in the country twenty minutes and they’ve kicked me out already!
Off I went over the bridge back into Guatemala to try and resolve the situation. Eventually I found the right official among the bedlam and explained the problem. She told me not to worry, they would check the bike’s serial numbers against the papers and stamp me out. She checked the registration plate against the import permit (Which their colleagues at the Mexico entry point had issued the week before) and she said one character didn’t match up. The permit incorrectly showed a D as an 0. I wasn’t surprised when she next said she couldn’t give me the stamp I needed to legally leave Guatemala. Yet another problem but at least this time I wasn’t to blame. Not that this knowledge helped any: Off to the side of where we were there were a dozen or so cars parked, seemingly abandoned, covered in dust and birdshit. Obviously they had been parked there a long time. I pictured my bike there also, a victim of the bureaucratic rigmarole.
Me: “Well the discrepancy is the fault of your organisation”
Customs Official: “Yes, but its your problem”
Wonderful. I should have read my horoscope that morning and just stayed in bed.
Maybe she was looking for a bribe, but I had decided that I wasn’t even going to explore that option. After more pleading and whingeing on my part she said that maybe her boss could fix it but he was “at lunch” (It was half past ten in the morning). Fine, I said I could wait, and acted like I had all the time in the world. I found a spot in the shade, sat down, had a smoke and generally tried to look causal and carefree even though I was ready to blow my top.
Eventually the boss did arrive after his brunch and with righteous indignation I outlined my maltreatment at the hands of Guatemalan Customs. I also produced more documents that proved that the registration plate was correct and the import permit wrong. I needn’t have worried though. He was a good sort and said of course we can fix this for you, sorry for the trouble. I wont look a gift horse in the mouth. I accepted his apology, he got my paper work corrected and with a handshake and a “buen viaje” I was off back over the bridge and into El Salvador, this time legally.
I only spent a few days in Salvador so didn’t really get a meaningful impression of the country. What I did notice straight away was that the roads where in much better condition, and drivers were generally much better behaved. Well, better behaved is a relative term; at least here overtaking in bends wasn’t mandatory like it seemed it was in Guatemala. In general it was stress free driving. The roads were in excellent shape and for the first time in couple of weeks I was able to average sixty miles an hour without fear of being shunted off the road or getting swallowed by a pothole the size of a small car.
The most interesting thing about El Salvador for me was the people’s connection with the United States. English was much more widely spoken and so many people I spoke to had friends and family living in the Maryland and DC area and several had lived there themselves. More than once I met people who knew the area I live in Maryland very well. Add to that, the US dollar is the official currency here, so for the time I spent here I didn’t have to do any mental calculations in my day to day transactions. I would hardly say its an “American” country, but the ties were obvious and strong.
With the exception of a couple of nights at the beach, I essentially transited through this small country. Hopefully I can come back again some day and explore it properly.
Anyway, Enough of my blathering. Its photo time!