|Explore North America Central America|
January 25, 1995
Re: Overland through Mexico, Central
America, and Ecuador, S.A.
Dear Travelers and South American Explorers/ Club:
I traveled in Mexico, Central America, and Ecuador from July through December 1994, six of the shortest months of my life. I drove down in a 1981 Volkswagen Vanagon from Arizona. The following information is offered to facilitate your trip. First of all, do not believe all the hype about the dangers of Central America. It is dangerous, in parts, but if you use common sense and educate yourself by talking with other travelers as you go, your fate is almost entirely in your control. The travelers who have bad experiences are usually those who either (1) take unreasonable risks, or (2) fail to educate themselves about current conditions as they travel. This is not to say that all misfortunes can be avoided--they can/t. But they can be kept to a minimum, and if you roll with the punches, the inconveniences and mishaps will not slow you down a bit.
I crossed over at Laredo, Texas. Ignoring advice to the contrary, I crossed at noon, reputedly the busiest time. The entire process of clearing migracion and getting the temporary importation permit for the van, which is mandatory, took twenty (20) minutes. Total cost was about $ 12.00. Regardless of what you are told after crossing the bridge into Nuevo Laredo, you ultimately will turn to right at the first street and proceed about two kilometers up the road where both migracion and customs papers can be processed. The building is large and well marked, with plenty of parking. First stop is Migracion. After your tourist card is issued or passport stamped, turn around and go to the booth in the center of the lobby where a clerk will charge your credit card with a fee that may range from $ 7.00 to $ 11.00. Your only other option is to post a cash bond, at a substantial cost. Turn to your right again and have photocopies made of the documents you just signed at the booth. Then proceed back past the permit booth to customs (Aduana) where your importation permit will be completed. A clerk/inspector will escort you to your vehicle to mount a sticker on your windshield. (Ask for the maximum time allowed on everything, even if you do not think you will need it.)
Regardless of where you enter Mexico, approximately 21 kilometers into the country you will come to a checkpoint. Here they get serious about your reason for coming to Mexico and what you may be carrying in your vehicle. You/ll know when you reach this point-of-no-return because a customs agent will stop you. There may be lots of questions and perhaps an inspection. Being deferential and friendly, but not suspiciously so, seems to help reduce the depth of the inquiries. It also helps if you have a definite destination, whether you are actually going there or not, and also if you have a friend or relative who you can say you are going to visit. The customs officials seem more comfortable with such information than if you say that you are just planning to roam about the country.
The roads in many parts of Mexico come in two varieties: (1) awful (when 35 m.p.h. feels dangerously fast); and (2) expensive (for those roads that have been turned over to private enterprises, which now charge outrageous tolls). When I was in Mexico, August-September, road-block type searches by the PJF (narcotics police in solid black uniforms) were very common. The searches are annoyingly frequent near the borders with Belize and Guatemala. Nothing to worry about, but keep an eye on them. In the old days, they had a reputation for planting whatever they were looking for on careless tourists. (Personally, I doubt that such things happen these days unless you were to give the PJF a reason not to like you, in which case I/d prefer not to be riding in your car.) Agricultural-type inspections when entering different states within Mexico were also common. Travel through Chiapas was safe (and spectacular). I encountered military checkpoints frequently. The soldiers were courteous, but very committed and serious about safeguarding the stability of the region--such as it was.
I had heard that the easiest crossing was at La Mesilla. Comitan is good place to stay the night before. I recommend the Hotel Los Lagos de Montebello and its restaurant. The hotel is a little expensive, but it is located right on the Pan American Highway and it is exceptionally pleasant. If you are a light sleeper, the tropical birds in the courtyard may keep you awake.
If La Mesilla is the easiest crossing, however, I can/t imagine what the others are like. Bribery and extortion were the rule of the day on the Guatemalan side. On the Mexican side you must explain, after clearing Migracion, that you will be returning with your car before the permit expires, if you want to keep the permit. But you will then have to reenter Mexico at the same point you left (or so they say). To curb the excessive and illegal fees that may be assessed against you (and all of us) by the Guatemalan officials we should all demand a written receipt for every penny they make us pay. It seems to be common practice to ask foreigners to pay from $ 10.00 to $ 70.00, but give a receipt for only $ 6.00 (the legal charge as of October 1, 1994). If you protest, they may make you wait so they can *get it worked out.* But if you do not take a stand, the next person may be charged even more. This practice does not seem to vary with respect to nationality. I observed the same practice used with Americans and Europeans. To add insult to injury, my vehicle was searched more thoroughly than any where else in Central America, and it was searched more than once.
After crossing the border, the roads were horrendous. Unless you have a very early start, you will not make Antigua or Guatemala City in day light. (And, by the way, never ever ever drive at night in this part of the world.) The dangers are too numerous to mention. Everything from farm animals to peasants to well-armed thieves are common on the roads shortly after sundown.) A convenient stopover is Huehuetenango. Try the Hotel Zaculeu (cheap, good restaurant, safe parking, charming staff) in the heart of town.
Harassment by the police was out of control when I was in Guatemala. You almost certainly will be stopped when your license plates are spotted. Occasionally a friendly wave to the policia before they are able to signal you to pull over will get you through, but don/t count on it. Do not stop or even slow down unless you are signalled to do so. Once you are stopped, they likely will come up with some infraction that you have committed. I was always able to resolve the problem by offering to pay the *fine* to the officer on the spot. I never had to pay more than about $ 5.00.
One suggestion: U.S. license plates make great souvenirs in Central America. If you have your license plates photocopied and laminated, you can mount the copies instead. You must have a plate on the front and back of the vehicle or you will be stopped repeatedly (and *fined* repeatedly), even if your state of residence only issues one plate. This photocopy strategy worked for me several times.
I crossed the border at El Florido--near Copan Ruinas. Al- though the last 30 miles in Guatemala are on dirt roads, they are as good as many of the paved roads in that country. Plus, there is an excellent hotel and restaurant about 12 miles from the border, in Jocotan, Guatemala. It is called Hotel Katu Sukchij. There is safe parking and the rates are very reasonable.
The border officials on both sides at El Florido are friendly and generally helpful. A few small bribes/propinas may expedite the process, but none seemed to be expected. No fumigation; no inspections.
Copan Ruinas is a peaceful little town, with good restaurants, bars, and hotels. A clean hotel with very secure parking is Popul Nah, near the plaza. The ruins at Copan are worth the one to two hours it takes to walk the grounds to see the elaborate stone carvings and the wildlife.
I encountered several police checkpoints, but a smile and a confident wave got the vehicle signalled through each time. After La Entrada, the roads in Honduras are fabulous. When I was in Honduras, except on the Bay Islands, there was severe energy rationing (usually less than 6 hours of electricity per day). Make sure you have extra batteries for your flashlight, and an extra flashlight for that matter.
Left Honduras via Danli, a pleasant little town in tobacco country. The Hotel Gran Granada is an excellent stopover right on the edge of town where the road to Nicaragua meets the highway to Tegucigalpa: good restaurant, cheap rates, safe parking, quiet, etc. Leaving Honduras is tricky. I hired a guia (guide) for about $ 3.00, who got all seven stamps for me and had me cleared in record time. Sadly, one of the border officials/inspectors politely suggested that his family would be very happy if I could spare a little of the food he found in my van while doing a cursory inspection. That was an easy *bribe* to live with, if it could even be called a bribe. Hiring the guide worked so well that I tried the same strategy to enter Nicaragua. All border personnel were helpful, though not necessarily friendly. No hassles, no bribes, no fumigation, no inspections. I encountered no police checkpoints in Nicaragua.
I had hoped to make it all the way to Costa Rica in a day, but could not. One safe stopover, which is near the Costa Rica border, is San Juan del Sur. The hotel of choice is Hotel Joxi, although none of the hotels, except the new, horrendously expensive, government-run one, had formal parking facilities. There are quaintly dilapidated little restaurants along the beach. The one closest Hotel Joxi seems to be the cleanest, and it serves delicious shrimp and fish. San Juan del Sur is reputed to have some of the most magnificent sunsets in the world. (It rained on the day I spent there, so I can/t say whether this true.)
Leaving Nicaragua seems to be much harder than getting into the country. At Penas Blancas, you must first pay your exit fee at building # 1, then go to building # 3 to pay for the car to leave, then go to building # 2 to have your passport processed, then return to building # 3 to have your vehicle papers processed (and, of course, pay again), then you must track down an inspector to clear the vehicle out of the country. Time-consuming and nonsensical! (This may be a good place to note that you should check your paperwork very carefully every time you enter or leave a country. For example, when I entered Nicaragua, the border clerk mistyped the vehicle identification number on my permit. This caused great confusion when I tried to leave and cost me an extra hour of explanations and conferences among border officials. I do not believe they really thought that I was trying to leave with a different vehicle than I brought in, but they are meticulous about their paperwork and apparently this discrepancy was too serious to ignore.)
This border crossing was a piece of cake. Everything is done in one building. You go to window number 1, then 2, then 3, and then 4. The vehicle was fumigated before I reached the migracion/ aduanas office (there is always a fee for this service). You must pay an entry tax for yourself and your vehicle, and purchase mandatory insurance, which was getting to be expensive in 1994 (nearly $ 40.00 for two months). The roads in Costa Rica are not particularly good. Police checks are frequent for the first fifty (50) miles. Thereafter, you will encounter cops with radar guns regularly. Drive slowly! Drivers headed in the opposite direction usually will flash their headlights to warn you about an upcoming speed trap.
I had made a side trip to Belize from Mexico. The border crossings both ways are very easy. In Belize, you will have to purchase car insurance even if you have a Central American policy. On reentry to Mexico, a thorough inspection and fumigation can be expected. Somewhere down the road, the PJF are likely to stop you as well. (Note: It was not possible in October 1994 to drive from Belize to Guatemala City.)
I did not take my vehicle to Ecuador, but I did drive in that country. The roads are on par with those in Costa Rica--lots of pot holes and drivers whose judgment is questionable at best. The biggest problem for driving is that there are virtually no road signs in Ecuador. Arm yourself with a good road map. On the positive side, the people here are the friendliest I have ever met, and they are very happy to give you their opinion about which road goes where. How useful those opinions are is debatable sometimes.
If you plan to make any part of this trip, the following suggestions may be helpful:
--know some Spanish
--invest in a car alarm and a locking device for your steering wheel
--purchase Central American liability insurance, which was available through Sanborn/s Mexico Insurance Service
--always park your vehicle in a secured lot
--even simple, cheap things can be valuable in this part of the world so try to keep your possessions out of sight
--do not drive after dark
--make and keep photocopies of all important documents after each border crossing (including your passport)
--always change some money at the borders--the black market traders give surprisingly good rates
--carry jumper cables, a towing cable, and at least one extra spare tire
Caveat: Please do not rely on the information in this letter to be accurate or current. It was so at one time, but many things change over time and you should do independent research for current information.
article published 5/24/2001