Last I wrote, I was in Granada, Nicaragua. The following day, I drove to Las Peñitas to stay for a day with Chris Dray and Yami Torrens. Yukoners will remember Chris as the former Director of the Arts Centre as well as the founder of the Guild way back when. Anyway, Chris wanted to do this real estate development close to the Pacific beach in Nicaragua, but the bottom fell out of the market with the 2009 depression. He is now farming, raising cattle while Yami is going to veterinary school.
Ah Honduras! A place to avoid if at all possible until the country gets its shit together: the highest murder rate in the world, one of the highest crime rates, an illegitimate government elected after a coup, and the most crooked police force I have ever encountered. Actually our first trip was sort of OK, although we did have issues with a tramite (border helper) who wanted us to get involved in all kinds of shady deals and would not leave us alone in Copán, and police who tried unsuccessfully to shake us down. This time, though I was shaken down twice by the police (the cops extorted $75 from me). I bitched about Panamanians being dishonest, but Hondurans will just steal from you. At least Panamanians try to use their wiles and not just intimidation.
Actually, the first tramite who helped across from Nicaragua to Honduras, Gustavo, seemed like a good guy; I even tipped him $10 more than the $10 he originally asked for. At least he got me into an air conditioned office while the Honduran customs officer took her time to take her finger out of her arse to fill out a simple form. She was actually quite pleasant, but spent a lot more time chatting with Gustavo and others and talking on her cell phone than working. Gustavo told me his dream was to go to Canada; he even lived in Minnesota for awhile because it was the closer. He tried getting in, but Canadian immigration wouldn’t, although they did not report him to the US “Migra“. He did eventually get deported from the US.
Before hiring Gustavo, I went through the Nicaraguan exit processes on my own. First wait in line for half an hour until the Nicaraguan customs officer deigned to look at my temporary vehicle importation permit, stamp if a few times and told me to go to immigration. At least I got to chat with a couple of truck drivers. They told me they usually have to wait about 12 hours to get through Costa Rican Customs. But once in Nicaragua, they can easily get into the other Central American countries (Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala) who sort of have a common customs and immigration process. However, as a foreigner, I do have to get a separate importation permit in each country for the pick-up and I also get my passport stamped by immigration. You get a total of 90 days for all four countries, so by the time I got to Guatemala, I only had 84 days left.At immigration, everyone was waiting at one window while the other one was open, until someone asked if we could go to it. I let the guy who had been in front of me go ahead before me at the second window even though he got there after me. I told him that I was from Canada where queues are sacred. He laughed saying that was not exactly the case in Nicaragua and we had a good chat.
The next border was from Honduras to el Salvador. I won’t say anything about my tramite because I would not want him to get in trouble. First the cop–whose name is , according to my tramite — extorted $40.00 from me because I did not have a “title” for the truck, even though I told him how come they let me in the country. He threatened to do a thorough inspection on my vehicle, which would have probably taken hours. My tramite suggested I bribe him $50.00, and then $40.00. So the cop let me go.
At the border, I let the tramite take my passport and go make copies. He told me he needed $15.00 and I gave him a $20 bill. I think it was a mistake not to go with him, but anyway, he gave me back my change. He later asked me for another $15 to pay for something or other. Anyway, go with your tramite when you are crossing the border, you will feel more comfortable that he is not ripping you off.
Then we needed to go to immigration, pay $12.00 for fumigation which did not happen. I don’t mind the fumigation at the borders: it is there to protect their agricultural industries on which these countries depend so much. We do that in Canada when you leave Newfoundland, which has a potato wart disease not present in the potato growing regions of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.
Anyway, we got to the border where there was a Honduran tourism department survey. They asked me how much I spent. I said: “$100.00. No, make that $175 including $75 in tips to the police.” The policeman next to the survey taker just smiled. Arsehole!!
Off to El Salvador, where the procedure was the usual: immigration to get my tourist stamp and then to Customs to get the vehicle importation permit. So I had to go down the hill, waiting outside in the heat where a customs officer finally deigned to look at my vehicle. He got quite friendly after I started talking to him and showed him the truck. He gave me a 60 days importation permit and we had a good chat. However, there was a mistake in the permit: he forgot to put the expiry date so he had to get his boss to approve him printing out another form. One last check on the border and I am on my way to San Salvador to the hotel I had reserved. I hand the tramite the $20.00 and he tells me he needs another $12.00 for the fumigation, which he says he had told me about earlier. I vaguely remembered him mentioning that and did not want to argue, so I gave it to him. Just inside El Salvador, I stop at a store to buy something to drink. A guy calls out to me and says my tramite had promised that I would give him a tip. I told him he did not. he insisted he did, so I told him that the tramite had lied to him and basically told him to fuck off.
The next day to Guatemala, I didn’t think I really needed a tramite, but I got one anyway. Procedure was quite simple in leaving El Salvador: Immigration for the passport stamp and Customs to hand in my importation permit. I do get a tramite, but this time I stick with him. The procedure is also OK in Guatemala: First immigration where they give me 84 days (of the original 90s I got in Nicaragua). Then to the SAT office—Superintendencia de Administración Tributaria, i.e. Department of Revenue or Finance. First hand in all the vehicle permits, then they give me a bill (160 Quetzales or about $20.00) for the vehicle permit, which is for 90 days. The amount surprises my tramite as it is usually less. On the other hand, according to what I have read on the web, the amount seems to be at the whim of the customs office. Not that htere is any corruption involved as everything is receipted and has to go through three hand. The across to the bank office where I pay it, then take the receipt across to yet another window where they hand me a sticker for my windshield.
I then drive to Antigua where I stay at the hotel Entre Volcanes and also give a call to Philip Wilson who kindly hosted my truck in his organic coffee farm last year. It’s nice to be among friends again. I also buy a piece of cloth to be used for our bedstead in Whitehorse. The next day off to Huehuetenango not far from the Mexican border. I am really dreading the border again, especially since I suspect we did not hand in or vehicle importation permit when we left Mexico for Belize in January 2010. Anyway, I know I don’t need a tramite at this border: the Mexicans frown upon it.
At the Guatemalan immigration, one of the agents asks me how to say “I am going to Mexico” in French. It turns out he has relatives in Montreal and has visited the city (where I was born & grew up, for those who don’t know). We had a little chat about Montreal. Then to the SAT office where I ask advice about what to do with my permit. I can chose to either hand it in, in which I cannot go back to Guatemala with the vehicle for another 90 days, or I can suspend it and go back anytime before it expires. There is no penalty or anything if I just let it expire without going back. No problem, so I suspend the permit just in case they do not let me into Mexico.
First Mexico immigration, fill out the card and get my 6-month tourist visa. Then to the Banjercito office to get a temporary vehicle importation permit. I tell the agent about having entered Mexico in December 2009 and leaving the following January. He looks at my truck registration which says that the vehicle capacity is 3,900 kilograms. He tells me that his records show I did not hand in my permit. I have a vague memory of talking with to a guy with a white t-shirt at the Belize border about it. Anyway, he tells me the real problem is the weight of the vehicle; the limit is no more than 3.5 tonnes.
He asks me what kind of vehicle; I tell him a normal pick-up with a camper. He looks at the truck and says that it is a small vehicle. He asks me if it could be in pounds rather than kilos, I do answer honestly that we have been using kilos for 30 years in Canada. He tells me he has to call his boss to see if he can give me a permit. I wait for about an hour in the heat; go get the required photocopies made. Finally, I go back in and he is on the phone. He smiles at me, takes my credit card ($30.00 or so) and gives me the permit and the sticker for the windshield. I suspect the wait was actually a slap on the wrist for not turning in my previous importation permit. I then go to the customs officer and ask him if he wants to see my truck. He takes a cursory look in and tells me everything is fine.
I have to say that I did not run into corrupt customs officers nor did I have to pay any bribes or tips to speed things up. The process was slow and bureaucratic and inefficient, but not corrupt, unlike the Panamanian customs in the middle of the country or the Honduran extortionist cops. The only time they checked my luggage was when I was leaving Panama, and they would only take a cursory look inside the camper.
Then into México, Chiapas State to be precise. Although Chiapas is the poorest state in Mexico, it is obviously so much more prosperous than Guatemala. That night in San Cristobál de las Casa where I finally find the San Nicholas RV Park after asking for directions and driving around the really narrow streets of the historic centre. Mexico has great roads, but you don’t want to be driving an extended-cab-long-box pick-up with a camper in the older parts of most towns, no more than you would want to do it in Vieux Québec, Old Montreal or the older parts of Boston or Philly. Unlike Central America, there are lots of real pick-ups in Mexico and few rice-burners, probably fewer than in Canada. But then gas is still less that $1.00 a litre for super. The next day a long drive to Córdoba in Veracruz state and yesterday yet another longer drive to Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city. Tomorrow to Melaque, park the truck at Pam and Bernie Phillips lot and fly out to Vancouver on Wednesday afternoon.