A Motorcyclists Guide to Central America – Part 1 – The Borders

When you drive through central America in any kind of vehicle you will come to loathe 2 things, Speedbumps and Border Crossings.
While nothing can be done about the first you can make your life a lot easier by preparing for the second.

Im not gonna go into Detail about specific Border Crossings as that Info changes constantly and will be outdated in no time. Use iOverlander or some other app to get up do date Info on where to go at which Border crossing.
What you’ll find here is general Info on how to best approach Border crossings in Central America, what to do and what to avoid, etc. etc.

Helpers

So let’s start by talking about Helpers. A Helper is a Guy that, for a “Tip”, will help you get across a border and who knows the process. Now these guys can be very helpful but at the End of the Day you have to watch out as not to get ripped off. It wont be hard to find them, they will descend on you like Vultures as soon as you approach the Border.
If you decide to hire one of these Guys make sure you make it clear upfront how much he will get in the End. If he says “Just a Tip” then ask him how much, “Just a Tip” can be anything from 1$ to 20$.
Another important thing is to never let these Guys hold your Passport, Title, Registration, etc. If theres a place where you need to make copies go there yourself, dont give your stuff to the helper and he wanders off with it. If he has your Passport or any other document at some point demand it back immediately, hes got no Business holding it and sometimes they’ll try to scam you by charging you for giving it back.
In some places they will offer to get you to the front of the line(Border from Nicaragua to Costa Rica is a good example here) for an additional Fee, ie Bribe. I did that at the aforementioned Border as well as from Mexico to Guatemala and it worked out fine but I’ve also seen people being sent to the back of the line by Border Officials that werent in on the Deal. That’s always a Possibility to keep in mind.

Other than that it’s a pretty straightforward thing if you hire one of these guys, just follow what he says and you’ll get through more or less hassle free.

Nicaragua

A Bureaucrats wet dream come true, theres no other way to put this. Getting into and out of Nicaragua is a Royal Pain in the Ass. The Thing about the Border to Nicaragua(doesnt matter where you come from) when entering with a vehicle isnt that its chaotic or difficult to understand, it’s just completely random how long you’re gonna be there.
The process itself isnt hard, get a stamp here, fill out a form there, wait.
What drives people insane is the randomness of how long it will take.
For example when I got to that Border I gave my Passport to an official to get stamped for entry. Without that Stamp no import Permit. It took them almost 4h to clear me. Some central Authority has to authorize your entry is the way I understand it.
Some Americans I met during that wait only waited for 1h, thats the randomness of it.
There really is no way around it(other than maybe bribing someone).
The Import Permit there is actually quite easy, once you have the stamp you fill in a form, give your paperwork and copies to the Aduana Guy and 10min. later you’re on your way.

The way out also isnt just “hey, bye, hope to never have to go through this crap again”. Oh no. You have to fill out the same form you filled in when entering the country and get it stamped 3 times to actually be allowed to leave.
Dont try to make sense of it, bring something to read and just go with it.

Safety

This is an easy one. Central America gets a lot of bad rep but the truth is that I left my bike unattended at these borders time and time again and nothing was ever taken and bear in mind I had my Camera, Gopro etc. all in my Tankbag.
If you still feel the urge for safety just try to park near some cops, theres always some lingering around .
Be wary of your surroundings tough, backalleys might not be the way to go.

Money

Forget about your Visa or Amex Card to pay at borders, thats not gonna happen 99% of the time.
Hell, some of them are really particular about which currency they take, some take Country A + B, others only B, others only A. And no, Dollars are not universally accepted. iOverlander usually has the Info you need on which coin to bring.
I wouldnt bother with exchanging it before you get to the border. Theres always guys running around with big bundles of money offering to exchange and their rates generally arent bad, they usually make 3-5% cut, same as any exchange office in a town.
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And even tough these guys wave around big bundles of money you shouldnt but thats just common sense.
For Bribes on the other hand its always handy to have some dollars in your pocket.

TIP

The TIP or Temporary Import Permit is the only way to get your motorcycle into any country in Central America legally, they’re really anal about it. Even if you just wanna drive through in one day you’ll need a TIP.
Again, the exact how can be found on iOverlander just remember that some countries require you to cancel it when leaving(Nicaragua….). Always keep your receipts and all paperwork you get from the Aduana Guys. Often you need it to Cancel the TIP or you’ll get fined(yes, they are that Anal about it).
Also pay attention to the stickers you get in some places, make sure your windscreen is clean, you dont want that crap to come off in a storm cause there was dirt on there when you put it on(again, very anal about that kind of thing).

Skipping the Line

If theres a long line, screw it. Just drive to the front of it. Nobody minds, this is Central America.

Copies

Always carry copies! Lots! Of Everything! Im not joking, this saved me a lot of time running around.
As soon as I got to Mexico I got 10 Copies of Title, Registration, License and Passport and from that point on I only had to worry about getting copies of the stamps in the passport(which sometimes you dont need)

Be prepared

Probably the most important Tip of all. Read up on the specific crossing before you go there, save the directions on your phone or print them out. Things can and will get very confusing at times and people will send you in the wrong direction or to the wrong office(Had a guy once who insisted I go to the Entry Office when I was leaving …). iOverlander is your friend here.
Also, things dont have to make sense, just roll with it.

When in Doubt, ask

Nothing worse than spending 1h waiting in Line only to find out it’s the wrong line. If you’re not certain ask Officials(!!!), this is important. Locals or Tourists might not be the best source of information but the Officials kinda have to know.
If theres some idle Helpers standing around you can ask them too and most of the time you’ll get a correct answer but dont except them to tell you exactly what to do without spending coin.

 

To summarize it’s not easy to get across Borders in Central America but if you come prepared and know what to expect you’re gonna be find(except Nicaragua, that ones just a pure Test of Faith).

So good Luck on your Travels and if you have any suggestions about something I could add to this article let me know in the comments.

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