border cross

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No hay sistema = There is no system.

This is what the scrap of paper poorly taped to the window read as we approached the Honduras customs office. And that pretty much summed up the process of importing our car into Honduras…

Armed with the standard documents (car title, licenses, insurance papers, passports etc) and countless photocopies we headed straight to the little system-less window, skirting the crowd of young men scrambling to “help” us through the process. Both of us were pretty determined to do it on our own so their pleas and postulations fell on deaf ears and, after the initial onslaught, they reluctantly left us for greener pastures.

Here’s the thing, I suspect that everyone at immigration gets a little kick-back when one of these paid guys helps you out with your paperwork. So, when we appeared at the window minus a “helper” our customs officer wasn’t overly friendly. He started off in rapid-fire Spanish, I asked (in Spanish) if he could slow down as we were still learning the language. He stared at me and continued to list off all the necessary photocopies. Being prepared, we pulled each of them out as required and, of course, he then insisted that we make copies of the two documents we had just filled out. So, we patiently overpaid for our photocopies from the border guard’s niece, returned and were waved to another office for another random document, where the smirking official told us that there was currently no system and that we would have to pay everything back at the customs window. He then sent us to the bank where they too reminded us that there was no system and directed us back to customs.

After handing everything in we waited hopefully at the immigration window for about 30 minutes. An officer turned up to confirm that our paperwork was in order…everything was ok he said, we just needed to make another photocopy of our application. He came out for the car inspection, lazily pushed a few things around, returned to the office and asked for $40 USD. We paid, knowing we had no other option and asked if we needed anything else..

Me: Nessecitamos mas copias? We need more copies?

Officer: No, no mas. You don’t need more.

Me: Seguro? This is sure?

Officer: Si listos! Yes, you are finished.

Tom: Entonces no mas copias? Then, no more copies?

Officer: No puedes salir. No, you can go.

We hurried back to Marlin and made a break for the border… the solitary Honduran official flagged us down (they often do this to check your papers) and we pulled over to hand him our permit and other documents. He looked at them and requested a photocopy.

I just about burst into tears and bit my tongue to hold back a flurry of vicious retorts. Tom bared his teeth and snarled at the official before throwing the car into reverse and furiously backed up the 300 yards to the photocopy shop finishing this maneuver with an erratic three point turn. Immediately after his wild display of frustration, the police knocked on the window to inform us that they were not impressed by his sweet driving skills and that he had committed an infraction. At this point, I was so irate I grabbed the documents, slammed the door and headed in to get more damn photocopies, muttering about how I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of Honduras.

I left copy world madness to find that there was no Tom and no car. I walked directly back to where I’d left them. Panic set in as I started to wonder if he had been arrested for rapidly reversing the wrong way down a two lane highway. At the same time I was berating myself for not having any money or ID on me whatsoever and wondering how I was going to get Tom out of jail … would anyone one lend a gal a lempira or two? Just as I start to feel nauseous I spotted Marlin in between two parked semis and Tom waving, looking beyond irritated, apparently he had decided to just drive away and hide from the police.

We drove back to the border crossing, threw photocopies at the border guard and, hoping the police weren’t on our tail, sped off into Honduras–the land of no system but lots of photocopies.

Leaving Guatemala wasn’t too difficult. It took about 20 minutes to cancel our car permit, which is relatively fast considering some people we met at the border had been waiting for 3 days. Crazy, what a foreign passport can do for you.

Entering El Salvador was pretty painless as well apart from the two hour wait. Luis was 12 and was spending his summer break making money off tourists in need of his “assistance”–with his cute smile and cheeky disposition he charmed his way into helping us too. Besides entertaining us he didn’t do too much for us except get the papers we needed to fill out ahead of time and he also kept an eye on our car.

It was a long wait as only three people were allowed into the immigration office at a time and the guard, loving called ‘Mr. Dirty’ by Luis, was pretty serious about keeping the line under control. He swaggered around carrying his little list of who was up next and was very strict about who could go in and at what time they would be permitted to enter the office.

The permit costs us nothing except the $1 USD we gave to Luis. After saying “adios” to Luis we were on the road again this time is search of relaxation for the Christmas week.

But, of course, there was one more police stop to contend with before we could fully relax. A relatively friendly police officer leaned in asking for our papers, he then requested that Tom open the trunk so he could have a look around. I did my part playing the bored wife in the front seat listening to the officer asking questions when Tom asked me, in a strangled voice, if I really wanted to keep the WEND magazine that we had stashed in the back. I replied that I was still reading it when the trunk slammed shut and Tom jumped in the car, revved the engine and sped off. Once we were out of sight Tom explained that the cop spotted the magazine and was curious if this was a “gift” for him… hope they enjoy their new reading material.

We finally found our relaxing beach vacation in El Tunco where we spent the days lazing in the sun, ham-napping (napping in a hammock) and surfing. All in all, a pretty sweet Christmas.

We crossed into Guatemala at the Melchor de Mencos border. To our surprise things went pretty smoothly as most of the information out there about crossing the Guatemalan border implied that it would be absolutely insane. We canceled both our tourist and car permit at the Belizean border and drove through a fumigation tunnel into Guatemala.

We paid the $3 for the delightful fumigation and headed over to immigration… no problems; Canadians and New Zealanders are eligible for a 90 days tourist permit, so we handed over our passports and asked for the full 90 days, our books were stamped and we paid the 20 quetzales to enter the country. We shifted counters to obtain our car permit — again a very simple process, we had arrived prepared and produced photocopies of our licenses, car registration and passports. The official filled out a document, gave us a sticker and then we paid a small importation fee. With all that done in less than half an hour we left the border not, of course, without paying a random town fee for “various” items.

We had a lot of ground to cover so we got moving right away, border zones are rumoured to be unsafe areas so we bee-lined it straight to the highway without stopping. The funny thing is there aren’t any highway signs so you really have no idea where you are or if you’re headed the right way. Our Spanish is good enough to ask for directions and we were pleased to find out that Guatemalans are extremely friendly and have a great knowledge of their country. Everyone we asked for directions happily pointed us to the right road. So, other than the fact that the roads weren’t signed and our map didn’t include a lot of the back roads, it wasn’t too bad. After 6 hours of driving, on a newly yet numberless paved highway, and a rather interesting boat/ferry (check out the video below) we made it to Coban.

Guatemalan Ferry from Kels M on Vimeo.

The following morning we got up early because we needed to make it to Quetzaltenango (or Xela, pronounced Shay-la, by the locals) by the end of the day. After some discussion with the hotel manager we found a route, which bypassed Guatemala City, the notoriously dangerous capital that we won’t be visiting. We took a beautiful, though long, route through the highlands which did have us on the edge of our seats looking out for crazy drivers, trucks overflowing with passengers and potholes the size of Marlin while trying to check out the amazing scenery. The road went from slippery mud to perfectly paved and back again. We are proud to report that our little VW handled the journey in fine form!

Driving in Guatemala from Kels M on Vimeo.