Run for the border

Driving from Popoyan to the border

We still managed to see some sights in Southern Colombia in our rush for the Colombia-Ecuador border. We stopped for two nights in the lovely white-washed town of Popoyan, a convenient resting place as we had been putting a lot of miles on our car in the last couple of weeks. The car and motorcycle traffic in the town couldn’t spoil the beauty of the old colonial buildings and squares, and we spent the day catching up on email and wandering its slightly noisy streets. We then pushed on for the border town of Ipiales. We were surprised to find a thriving small city, the streets filled with people shopping for Mother’s Day. Since we left the US, the border towns in Central America tended to be slightly depressing or uninteresting small towns, so Ipiales was a nice change of pace. Before crossing the border, we visited the beautiful Sancutuario de las Lajas the next morning. A dramatic steep canyon carved by the Guaitara River cuts through the countryside in this area of Colombia. Deep within the canyon and surrounded by waterfalls, the church was built upon the miraculous site of the appearance of the Virgin Mary in the rock of the canyon’s wall. The church was built around this rock that forms the high altar of the church. The walk down to the church is lined with small plaques of devotion and thanks to the Virgin Mary, and Sunday Mass was in full swing as we walked around the outside of the church. It is perched on the cliffside halfway down the canyon wall, and we admired the view before puffing our way back up to our car. We still feel quite effected by the high altitude, but hopefully more time will acclimate us better.

Bustling square in Ipiales

After visiting this holy place, we experienced a small miracle of our own: a hassle-free border crossing. 5 minutes to exit Colombia, 45 minutes to enter Ecuador and receive our car import permit, and no hoards of people thronging our car offering to ‘help’ us through the border crossing. It seemed too easy after the chaos of Central America, but here’s hoping that the remaining South American borders will be equally tranquilo. A couple of hours later we arrived in Quito, where we spent two days organizing our car and finalizing arrangements for our trip back to the US. In typical wonderful Colombian style, the nephew of friends of the parents of the family we stayed with in Bucaramanga and Bogota had kindly offered to lend us a parking space in his garage for the 3 weeks we would be back in the US. We’ll be returning to Quito in 3 weeks to resume our trip.

Devotional plaques outside the Sanctuario de las Lajas

Crazy zig zag around Nicaragua

When we left El Tunco in El Salvador for Nicaragua, we knew we were in for a painful experience. A 40 mile section of Honduras stood between us and Nicauragua, and given our last experience with corrupt border officials and police there, we were in for a grueling day fighting crowds and avoiding bribes. Armed with our previous experience, we were not shocked by the chaos and disorder that ruled at the El Salvador-Honduras border. 40 miles later the crossing from Honduras into Nicaragua was largely uneventful, as we received our car import permit for free and purchased Nicaraguan car insurance at the border. We breathed a sigh of relief as Honduras disappeared into the distance behind us and the volcanoes of Nicaragua loomed ahead.
We were very underwhelmed by Masachapa and Pochomil, the first beaches we encountered in Nicaragua. Ramshackle shanties and half assembled thatched-roof huts ringed the beaches, and the restaurant and hotel owners seemed to have learned their sales tactics from the Honduran border. We were chased down the sandy street by men waving menus and shouting the dinner specials. After losing the crowd following the car, we found an overpriced dump of a hotel and stayed the night, hoping that the beaches further south would be more appetizing.

On our drive south, we learned some valuable lessons about how to avoid bribing the Nicaraguan police when they pull you over for some bogus reason. Whether it was speeding, passing, or not having an orange safety triangle, we almost enjoy interacting with the police at this point. They are always friendly as they sadly explain that we have violated some law and will now have to pay a fine. Unfortunately they explain, this means they will have to keep our license and we will have to drive to some distant town the next day to pay a fine in order to retrieve our license. Because this particular police officer is a good guy though, he will offer us the very reasonable alternative of paying him directly to avoid the inconvenience of waiting a day and driving around. Knowing that we haven’t been speeding, passing, and the triangle excuse may be bogus, we play along and state that we would be perfectly happy to retrieve our license and pay the fine the next day. This sends the police officer into a state of confusion, causing him to ask if we understood what he said. He then pulls his last trick out of his hat, and whips out a pad of paper as if to write a ticket. We just sit there serenely, nodding, and wait for him to give up and hand us back our license when he realizes we have called his bluff. Works like a charm. We have probably been pulled over 10 times in the last 2 weeks, and this has worked every time.

We had high hopes for San Juan del Sur, a beach town in southern Nicaragua close to the Costa Rica border, as the Lonely Planet guides described it as slightly ‘vacuous and gringofied.’ In general for beach towns, we have found that this signifies the availability of a variety of nice restaurants, hotel options, and usually a beautiful location. While the town was pleasant and we were looking forward to several days of sun and surf, our stay there was cut short by two unrelated and unfortunate events. First, Chris had a bizarre infection that caused his foot to swell up alarmingly, which we refered to as ‘club foot’ for the next few weeks. Without an appointment, we paid $1.50 and waited only 15 minutes to see the local doctor, who prescribed antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, rest and ice. Later that night, his eyes swelled halfway shut making him look like a freak of nature. Second, we befriended a local restaurant owner who helped us translate the Spanish legalese in our Nicaraguan insurance document, and we found out that our car was dangerously underinsured by the policy we had purchased at the border. After calling the Nicaraguan insurance office the next morning to try to purchase sufficient coverage, we had to rush to Managua. To buy sufficient insurance, the Nicaraguan insurance company had to see our car in person, and was closing for the Christmas holiday in three hours. Two and a half tense hours later, we navigated our way through the un-named streets of Managua, frantically asking directions from the locals, and interrupted the holiday party of the insurance company. They were very gracious, quickly wrote us an excellent policy, and turned off the lights behind us as we left the building. Exhausted by the frantic driving and medical semi-emergencies, we found a lovely hotel in Granada with swimming pool, AC, and cable TV, and happily lazed around for two days while awaiting the arrival of our friends Laurie and Steve from the Unites States.

I hella hate Honduras

I know my opinion is very biased since we didn’t see any of the highlights Honduras does offer. However, if your only experience with Honduras is driving through on your way to Nicaragua, you may find yourself feeling the same way. Our plan was to leave Guatemala and head to the Pacific coast of El Salvador for some surfing, and looking at the map we had two options. We could take a longer route driving south through Guatemala directly to El Salvador, or take the faster beeline from our location at Rio Dulce straight down to the Pacific. It sounds like a simple decision, except that the shorter route passes through a small stretch of Honduras for only 20 kilometers (15 miles). This would force us cross two borders in one day. “No problem!”, Kristin and I agreed. Borders can be a pain, but how bad could it be?

Semi trucks parked halfway on the roadway as we neared the Guatemala-Honduras border forced us to crawl along the pothole-choked road. We soon found ourselves in the middle of a dirty place of mayhem, with men sprinting after our car and crowding around us yelling to get our attention. The men in this welcome party want to “assist” you across the border. For a fee you get to hand over your passport, car title, registration and a wad of cash, then hope they return after an hour or so with your paperwork completed. Men banged on our windows while others stood in the parking lot trying to wave us in. To add to the confusion, very few of the government officials working at this border wear uniforms, making it hard to weed out the hustlers from the officials.

Getting our Honduran vehicle import permit turned out to be even more fun that we expected. We entered a dark, dingy room filled with cardboard boxes overflowing with old documents. There we spent an over an hour waiting for a T-shirt clad official to work on our paperwork, as he was interrupted every few minutes by a sweaty man handing him wads of cash. After finishing, he asked us for $100 US dollars for a processing fee, which caused Kristin to start yelling “that is not correct” in Spanish. One of the few uniformed officials overheard her complaints and told us that price was indeed incorrect, and we only needed to pay $40. I naively expected that the person attempting to extort us to be led out of the building in handcuffs. Instead, the crooked official walked us over to border guards, handed them our completed paperwork, and shook my hand. Just like the police who tried to squeeze money out of us in Mexico, once the gig is up, you are given a firm handshake and called their amigo. The grin he had on his face seemed to say “I almost got sixty bucks off you, but you caught me! You have to give me credit for trying through, eh?”

Our opinion of Honduras worsened when the police at a roadblock several miles from the border motioned us to pull over. After taking Kristin’s driver’s license, the policeman asked us if we had a fire extinguisher and orange safety triangle, which we did not. He then claimed that Honduran law requires all drivers to have these items in their car, and he would need to confiscate Kristin’s license until we paid a fine. I did not catch the exact amount of the fine since the number was much larger than we were used to dealing with. I did hear the word miles, which means thousands, so the price was equivalent to at least one hundred US dollars. He quickly pointed out that all of this could be taken care right here by giving him $30 directly. At this point I got so mad I could no longer pronounce any words in Spanish, but through Kristin I insisted that we would be happy to pay any fine the next day at a police station, but would give nothing to the policeman himself. He dropped his “fee” from $20 down to $5, but we held our ground. I finally used the last ditch effort I picked up from Tom and Kelsey. I pulled out a sheet of paper and a pen, then asked him his name and number as if I was going to report this issue. It worked, and he grudgingly handed Kristin’s license back, and we continued on our way. Luckily we are from the United States, a country with some clout. I did hear an unfortunate story from an El Salvadoran where he said that the police in Mexico handcuffed him, drove him and his vehicle to a side road, then searched his car until they found $500 USD he had hidden. The police in Mexico knew that the government of El Salvador would never have the resources to investigate into a missing five hundred dollars.

Crossing the El Salvador-Honduras border on our way to Nicaragua, we had to go through a different but just as painful process again. This border was located on a river, where women sat on rocks washing clothes while a pig rooted his way through garbage along the riverbank. On the Honduras side of the bridge we were stopped by a guard sporting a wooden stock automatic weapon that would look more at home in a museum. We parked our car in the middle of the bridge blocking one of the two lanes as we were told, and entered a small single room cement building that smelled like urine. The only furnishings in the building were 3 yellowed official looking documents taped to the wall and a rickety wooden desk. The official inside sat at the desk working on our paperwork in between what seemed to be personal phone calls on his mobile phone. I looked out the small window on the back of the building to gaze upon a tree covered slope filled with more piles of trash. Welcome to Honduras!

Crossing Mexico’s other border

We successfully crossed the border between Mexico and Guatemala on Saturday November 8. We spent the previous evening in Comitan, a town close to the border, but far enough away to be removed from border problems. According to the International Migration Organization, one out of every ten Guatemalans live in the USA as of 2003. Mexico is fighting the same losing battle as the United States in trying to stem the flow of illegal immigrants and drugs migrating across their southern border. With more than 1/3 of the population of Guatemala living on less than $2 USD a day, it is easy to see why over 100,000 Guatemalans risk their lives trying to cross through Mexico to enter the United States every year. We woke up at 6 in the morning in order to get an early start, as it is best to be off the roads in Guatemala by the early afternoon. We arrived at the Mexican immigration office just as they were opening at 8 AM, and after about an hour we were back in the car heading towards the Guatemalan border. After ten minutes of driving, the road seemed to disappear in a crowd of people and crude market stalls. Not knowing what to do next, we drove at a slow crawl while unconerned people moved slowly out of our way until we came to an orange cone in the middle of our lane, and a small chain link fence extending from both sides of the road. A man in a blue uniform asked us to get out of the car, and then proceeded to spray down the inside and outside of the car with an strong citrus scented insecticide. I am not sure what I was expecting the border to be like, but it definitely was not this. Looking to the side, you could see cement posts placed every 50 yards up the hillside marking the border. After paying for this unusual car spray down, we spent another hour getting all the payments and papers processed for Guatemala. We then got back in the car and fought our way through more street markets. While it took about 2 hours to get our papers in order, passports stamped, vehicle import permit, and fumigate the car, in general it was a pretty painless process. It felt strange to be able to actually see the border between two countries stretching up the hillside.

(Mexican-Guatemalan Border)

A street market had taken over the main highway that ran through the Guatemalan border town of La Mesilla, so after a quick detour through some narrow streets that wound through small neighborhoods, we continued on the Pan-American Highway to Queztaltenango. Locals refer to this bustling town as Xelaju (shay-la-who), which is the original K’iche name for the pre-Hispanic site. The K’iche people are direct descendants of the Mayans, and they make up about half of the town’s population. They are easily recognized, as their clothes are a riot of different colors and patterns, but they seem to be completely integrated in to modern life, as we see them in McDonalds, talking on cell-phones, and riding noisy scooters around town. Xelaju is the somewhat gritty commercial center of Western Guatemala, and has a mix of beautiful crumbling colonial homes and churches around the central park that contrast with the typical cement-walled and tin-roofed homes of most of the inhabitants. The views from the city are shrouded in fog mornings and evenings, but during the sunny afternoons two dramatic volcanoes grace the horizon. We decided to stay in Xelaju for several weeks to live with a local family and take intensive Spanish lessons.

(street market in La Mesilla, Guatemala