A Travel ‘Failure’ Leads to Saving Money and Staying Safe.
The more I’ve heard about Honduras, the more I’m certain driving straight across in one shot is the right thing to do.
Crossing two borders and driving 300 miles in a single day was not my plan at the start. Driving across a country in a single day is a bit of a failure, I think. I wouldn’t be able to try new foods, see beautiful places or meet locals. In short, I wouldn’t be experiencing the country. To be honest, I’m not sure I’d be able to say I went there at all.
Over the last few months, I’ve heard many horror stories about bribery and corruption in Honduras. It seems the police and military often do whatever they want to foreigners in order to extract cash. Everyone has a different experience and, therefore, a different story. My friend, Rupert, wound up in handcuffs on the side of the road—narrowly avoiding a night in jail by paying hundreds of dollars. I’m certain jail in Honduras is no fun, and I have no desire to find out for sure.
By minimizing my time in that country, I hoped to lessen the chances of serious problems with the corrupt officials—meaning I’d attempt to cross Honduras in a single, huge day.
Leaving El Salvador
I break camp before sunrise, then pace up and down for 30 minutes, impatiently waiting for my tent fly to dry. I have it draped over the side of the Jeep to catch the morning sun. It’s a slow, but effective, drying method.
After two hours driving in the early-dawn light, I stop for gas a few miles before the Honduran border. The station attendants love the map on the hood depicting my route, and we strike up a conversation, again making me appreciate how far my Spanish has come.
When I tell them I’m going to Honduras, both men immediately look serious before explaining the most common scams. The corrupt officials will demand to see my license and then refuse to give it back unless I pay up. Knowing I won’t leave without it, the officers will have me cornered, and I’ll have little choice but to pay. It’s also a certainty they’ll ask to see my fire extinguisher and safety triangle—the kind used on the road to warn other vehicles of a breakdown. If I fail to produce either, the corrupt police and military will demand a bribe, with the threat of arrest or vehicle impound.
I have to smile when it turns out this very gas station sells fire extinguishers and triangles; how convenient! I start to wonder where the scams actually begin.
For $16, I splash out and purchase both, hoping to avoid at least some conflict throughout the day. I play with my new triangle for about three seconds before I lose interest, tossing it in the back. Even here, at the gas station, a few miles before the border, fixers spot me and come running over. As usual, they insist the crossing will take hours without them and only 20 minutes with. They repeatedly say the border is extremely difficult and dangerous, and I must use their help. However, I’m determined to stick to my guns, so I wave them away with thanks.
I pass a line of trucks that stretches over two miles before I stop at a crumbling shack to cancel my El Salvadorian Jeep paperwork. I must photocopy a form, and I’m not surprised to see that an enterprising person has a photocopier exactly where I need it. The guy is obviously proud to charge 5 cents per copy—an amount he clearly thinks is exorbitant.
Fifty yards more, and I arrive at El Salvadorian immigration, where nearly 100 people are milling around. I park as conspicuously as possible before forging ahead in an attempt to get myself officially stamped. A guy wearing a uniform with ID says I must pay $3 (USD) to enter Honduras and that he’ll give me a (somewhat official-looking) receipt. I’m skeptical, believing the CA-4 stamp in my passport allows free travel among multiple countries in this region of Central America.
I realize I’ll spend the rest of the day arguing with people about money, so I decide to let this one slide. After only a short discussion, I pay the $3 so I can move forward quickly. I feel certain this is only the first of many battles I’ll fight today.
Men rush and literally grab onto the moving Jeep as I drive over an old, crumbling bridge. They are money changers and desperately want my business. After agreeing to a rate, I change some small bills before shaking off these men and inching forward.
Immediately over the bridge, I find myself in a dry and dusty shanty town, which is apparently the border post. Hundreds of grubby and exhausted people with blank expressions on their faces mill about. Almost none appears to have any purpose; they simply lie still in the shade. The thermometer swinging from my rearview mirror is maxed at 100 degrees (F), and it’s only 10 a.m.
The paperwork chase begins, and I almost fall over when the immigration guy asks for the $3 receipt I paid earlier. It seems that it was legit, and I really was supposed to pay. I’m glad I didn’t argue with that guy for too long.
Before all is said and done, the following papers are shuffled—requiring multiple trips to the photocopier, bank … and then back to the bank again for good measure:
- Three copies of my passport photo page
- Three copies of the registration for the Jeep
- Three copies of my driver’s license
- Three copies of receipt #1: 135 lempiras ($7), paid at the bank
- Three copies of receipt #2: 500.72 lempiras ($26), paid at the bank
- Three more copies of my passport with a new Honduran entrance stamp and the $3 receipt from earlier
After all the back and forth, I’m finally issued a permit for the Jeep that allows me to drive into Honduras.
Eager to get underway, I tear away from the border, but fewer than 100 yards into Honduras, three military guys eagerly wave me down. I intentionally stop in the driving lane, leaving the engine running, and I don’t get out. All three men are barely in their 20s and don’t yet fill out their uniforms. They’re trying hard to look tough, although they all carry their assault rifles awkwardly, thus ruining the attempt. The oldest man, clearly the leader, approaches my window.
He demands my driver’s license, which he snatches away before demanding to see my fire extinguisher. I smugly produce it (it’s still in the box and with the price sticker clearly visible). Not to be deterred, he immediately demands to see a safety triangle. I produce the new triangle, which is also still in the box, with its price sticker front and center. After a quick glance, he’s pleased to announce that I must have two triangles; one won’t do.
I decide to play another angle and start replying to everything with “No entiendo” (“I don’t understand”) in my worst possible gringo accent. He dives into a long and rambling tale about how I must have two triangles for safety. I interject every sentence or two with more “No entiendo” while painting my face with a blank, trying-hard-to-understand look.
When he finally finishes, I stare blankly, with no comprehension at all. He’s visibly frustrated and storms off with my license to consult his cohorts. They all frown and scowl at me while discussing the situation, clearly unsure of how to proceed. They take turns carefully inspecting my license, turning it over and holding it close to their faces. After seeing the blank back side and how easily the card bends, the leader marches over and announces that I’ve given him a copy. He demands the original.
Again, I reply many times with “no entiendo”—all the while smiling and pretending to try my absolute best to understand. He clearly knows I’ve given him a copy. He also knows he has nothing on me without the original. Try as he might, he’s unable to make me understand that he must have the original.
Ten minutes have passed since I blocked the driving lane, and a transport truck is now blocking the other lane. Together, we’re creating a huge traffic jam, and the many honks from the impatient line of vehicles comprise too many witnesses for the inexperienced young officer. Clearly disgusted, he throws the copy of my license at me and hurries to the next customer in line. One down, many to go.
Only 100 yards farther, I’m stopped again, this time by a friendly guy in uniform who needs to see my shiny, new Honduran paperwork for the Jeep. He insists on keeping a copy for his records, which I don’t have. I have three copies of the receipts and many more of all my other documents, but no copy of the one he needs. I try hard to escape the inevitable, although he’ll have none of it.
With no other available choice, I turn around and get stuck in the traffic leaving Honduras before getting copies and returning. While driving past my three young military friends, I intentionally look away and have no idea if they try to stop me again. After handing over the new copy of my Jeep paperwork, I can finally enter Honduras.
Fewer than three miles farther, a group of men in military uniform stand under the shade of a tree and eagerly wave me down. It’s abundantly clear they’ve been waiting for a tourist (naturally, I wonder if someone called ahead).
I’ve driven 320 miles across three countries in 14½ hours. We did it! Good Jeep. After a cold shower and one beer, I fall into a dreamless sleep.
At first, I stop in the middle of the road. However, they insist I park on the shoulder, so I comply. This is a game of knowing when to push my luck and when to obey. The youngest of the three, who can’t be more than 17, approaches my window and starts the familiar routine.
First, he demands my license, followed by the fire extinguisher and triangle. I immediately produce the fire extinguisher—before really making him work to make me understand the word for triangle (“triangular”). I say “No entiendo” so many times that even I get sick of hearing it. The young officer dives into a winding tale about how a triangle is used in the event of a flat tire. I continually make it clear I have no idea what he’s talking about. So, to emphasize his point, he kicks the nearest tire on the Jeep. My face lights up with a huge grin as I point to the spare on the back. In the worst Spanish accent I can muster, I say, “Sí; tengo cinco llantas” (“yes; I have five tires”). His shoulders slump with disappointment at my obvious stupidity. Now he knows for sure that he’s dealing with an imbecile. He realizes there’s no way to explain what he wants. Clearly, I’m simply too stupid to understand.
Finally, as a last resort, he asks me—begs me—for money. For a split second, I feel like giving it to him, simply because he’s so young. Even so, I continue with my “not understanding” bit. After the best puppy dog eyes he can manage, the young officer eventually gives up and waves me away. In the mirror, I see his buddies give him a hard time about returning empty-handed.
This military bribery routine is repeated twice more in more or less similar circumstances and always with the same outcome: After wasting enough of their time and energy, I’m waved through—still holding all my money.
The more I’ve heard about Honduras, however, the more I’m certain driving straight across in one shot is the right thing to do.
Variations include a bribe, because the Jeep doesn’t have a front license plate and another officer asking if I have a jack before he hilariously pantomimes jacking up the Jeep in an attempt to make me understand. My trusty “No entiendo” response sees me through both of these—and more—without incident.
One stop, however, is noticeably different. The officers aren’t lounging in the shade. There are large barriers on the road, and the entire roadblock has an official air about it.
The immaculately dressed officer politely asks to see all my documentation (including my passport), asks a few quick questions about my origin and destination, and then waves me through in fewer than 30 seconds. He even smiles and wishes me a safe journey. I gather this is an “authorized” checkpoint, while all the others are military guys doing whatever they want to earn extra cash—probably on their day off.
The main highway is choked with painfully slow trucks and more corrupt officials, so I make a snap decision and turn east, aiming for the small border crossing at El Espino.
I’m immediately happy about this decision. The chosen road winds up through small mountains … without a single military roadblock in sight. I pass through numerous small towns and villages that are clean, and the locals seem friendly. I thoroughly enjoy this part of Honduras and briefly consider spending the night here. I keep an eagle eye out but can’t spot any hotels. With the numerous warnings about safety in Honduras, I have no intention of wild-camping beside the road.
Four hours after entering Honduras, I arrive at the Nicaraguan border. The only stops have been the many military roadblocks (official and otherwise). I’m so surprised by what I see, I ask someone if this is the actual border. The whole area is spotless and quiet; not a single person hassles me. In fact, the few people I do see completely ignore me, which comes as a huge shock. This is unlike any border I’ve seen so far in Central America.
At this point, I’m still thinking it’s a failure to drive across the country in one go: I want to mingle with Hondurans. With that in mind, I sit in a small roadside café for lunch that’s just 100 yards before the border gates. I order tacos and am delighted when they are hard-shelled and stuffed with cheese, onions and tomato. They’re so delicious that I immediately order another round—much to the delight of the lady running the busy, one-person operation.
Striking up a conversation with locals is fun, and I’m again shocked at how far my Spanish has progressed. It’s great to actually reply and have a conversation rather than repeat the same three lines like a broken record. In fact, throughout the entire day, including the border issues and bribery attempts, I’ve understood 95 percent of everything said to me. The week of intensive Spanish lessons I took in El Salvador is paying off tenfold by making life easier and a lot more fun.
A problem arises inside the deserted immigration office while getting stamped out of Honduras. Years ago, I was granted a visitor visa for the United States; and because of a mistake with the dates, it was canceled, and a replacement visa was issued immediately.
Both are full pages in my passport, and the incorrect visa has a huge stamp in red that reads, “Cancelled Without Prejudice” in English. However, The immigration officer thinks this means I was kicked out or banned. He’s certain anyone banned from the United States shouldn’t be allowed into Honduras.
It makes no difference how many times I explain the situation and show him my valid U.S. visa. He’s determined to hold me up. Even when I point out that I’m already legally in Honduras and simply want to leave, he won’t listen. After 30 minutes, he calls his superior to discuss what to do. I get the feeling he wants a bribe to hurry the process along. Realizing he expects me to be in a hurry, I sit and wait patiently, making it clear I have all the time in the world. After another 30 minutes, he loses interest, gives me an exit stamp, and I’m free to go.
The attendant holding a rope across the road asks to see my passport and papers for one last check before I can drive out of Honduras. He assures me multiple times this is absolutely the last check in Honduras and that I won’t have anything else to deal with. This really is it; I really can leave now. I must simply pay $10 and then, I can go. I politely ask for a receipt, which causes him to instantly bow his head, lower the rope and wave me through (I can’t blame the guy for trying to bribe me).
I have to exchange the remaining Honduran cash I have. It’s the second time doing so today. I have absolutely no idea what the exchange rate is, having never looked it up.
It’s no surprise when a money changer appears just when I need him. He offers a rate I barely listen to before immediately asking for a better one. He raises it a little, and I apply a little more pressure. He raises the rate twice more before turning to walk away, saying that it’s the best he can do.
“OK,” I say. “I’ll take that.”
After a clean, quiet—and easy—border crossing, I drive into the streets of Nicaragua in the late afternoon. This is country number three for the day.
During this lengthy negotiation, the sun has inched below the horizon. My one and only ‘golden rule’ is to avoid driving in the dark at all costs due to the serious dangers present on the roads at night.
I’ll be the first to admit I’ve picked up horrendous driving habits since crossing into Mexico many months ago. Road rules simply don’t apply here. More often than not, it’s safer to ignore them anyway. I honestly haven’t looked at a speed limit in months. I couldn’t care less for give-way or stop signs, and I completely ignore double lines on the road. Nevertheless, I do mostly obey red lights, except when it’s easier to flow with the moving traffic and just go through.
Shifty Driving Gets a Ticket
Extremely slow vehicles and horse-drawn carts are common occurrences in Central America; and, in my usual style, I zip around one on the outside of a blind corner. I cross double lines, doing about 50 mph … nothing unusual. Two policemen are waiting at the bottom of the hill and eagerly flag me down. I once again get the feeling they were waiting for me and must have been tipped off to my approach.
After taking my license, it becomes clear they’ll write a ticket for my many infractions. They tell me the ticket will be about $20. The catch is that they’ll keep my license while I pay at a nearby bank. I was clearly breaking the law and was caught red-handed, so I’m happy to pay the legitimate fine.
The problem comes when I must backtrack a long way to a specific bank. They only have a copy of my license—which I could easily abandon—but with no other way around this situation, I can’t drive away from the bank. By making me backtrack, the officers have ensured I must pass by them after visiting the bank.
During this lengthy negotiation, the sun has inched below the horizon. My one and only “golden rule” is to avoid driving in the dark at all costs due to the serious dangers present on the roads at night.
After talking around the problem, it becomes clear they need money for gas, so I give them 100 córdobas ($5)—literally everything I have in my wallet.
Immediately, the two policemen are my best friends. The ticket is forgotten, my license is returned, and they helpfully give directions to my destination before wishing me well. This is only the second speeding ticket I’ve ever gotten … and I bribed my way out of it.
As I pull away from the waving officers, it dawns on me: Maybe Nicaragua is stricter with road rules. Maybe I should toe the line more than I have been lately if I want to avoid more tickets.
These good intentions last all of five minutes before I fall back to my old ways of driving as I please.
One Long Day, Three Countries
I drive through an endless dusk before the light fades entirely and I find myself in pitch black. Having never once driven in the dark since entering Mexico, I find it difficult and intimidating. Horses, bicycles, children, abandoned vehicles, potholes and farm equipment materialize out of the darkness, and I work overtime on concentration. Now I remember why I don’t drive at night.
Hours later, I pull into a large gas station and feel an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. The entire place is spotless, inside and out. Shelves are stacked with the requisite junk food, and there’s a line of people waiting at the attached fast food joint. The music that’s playing—in English—helps complete the picture.
Finally, at 9:30 p.m., I climb stiffly out of the Jeep, safely parked in front of the Big Foot hostel in downtown León, the second-largest city in the country.
I’ve driven 320 miles across three countries in 14½ hours. We did it! Good Jeep. After a cold shower and one beer, I fall into a dreamless sleep.