Turning 30 in El Salvador & Honduras

Welp… I checked the math, twice, and I really did turn 30 a few days ago. It seems impossible but numbers don’t lie so here begins another decade. This decade started with some interesting events and challenges, so I expect nothing less from the next 10 years.

We crossed into El Salvador late on November 9th. We had a bit of a delay because we ran into our first issue with Andre not having his original Covid vaccination card (yep, he left it at home). Until now, a photo of it had been fine. After a lot of back and forth with the immigration officer, Andre finally found a record of it online and was able to use the QR code, phew! It was late though and getting dark, we try not to drive after dusk due to fear of huge hidden potholes.

We saw a hotel on iOverlander, which was strangely listed as an “auto” hotel. It was the closest we could find to the border and by the time we pulled through the gates it was well after dark. Once we checked into our room, we realized the “auto hotel” was actually a love hotel, where you could also hide your car in a pull in garage. The room was weird, I won’t go into details. But it was safe and worked for a night. We happily hopped into Savannah the next day and left it behind us.

Originally, we had wanted to visit Santa Ana, one of the most well known volcanoes in El Salvador and with a lake inside of the crater. But with the delay from the crossing the day before, and our constant feeling of being behind schedule, we decided to skip it and head to the coast. We ended up at Playa El Palmarcito parked in the parking lot of a hostel called “Hammock Plantation.” It did indeed have many hammocks hung along the wrap around porch that were available to us. The beach nearby the hostel was rocky with black sand which was cool. We watched surfers do tricks and local fisherman catch fish with nets for the nearby restaurants. Later, we ate out at a nearby (slightly expensive) restaurant on the shoreline with strange, huge dinosaur statues that were animated. It was a hot night in the van, but we were happy to have a shower before suffering through.

The next day I wasn’t feeling so well, but we knew we needed to keep gunning it South. Our plan was to packraft through some mangrove tunnels in Bahia de Jiquilisco and find a place to camp in the van nearby. But with me not feeling so hot, we decided to spend a night in a “treehouse” hotel on the bay. The tree houses weren’t really up in the trees but rather two story buildings with a canopy view of the local flora. We fretted about the next border crossings for a bit while hanging in some hammocks.

By evening, I was feeling well enough to paddle out into the mangrove tunnels. This was the first time we were able to use our packrafts on the trip! We thought we would be paddling against the current on the way out, and ride it back in, so we were pleased to float casually out towards the sea. We found a small mangrove tunnel that looked like most tourist boats wouldn’t be able to fit in. Slowly, we worked our way through the vines and under the logs keeping our eyes out for animals on the muddy banks. I thought it was funny that it felt like I was giving my twenties one last shot to get me – by taking an inflatable raft into crocodile territory. But, we did not see any crocs or get any holes.

Once we finished exploring, we were disappointed that we misread the tide as we paddled against the current back to the hotel. We were benighted, but it wasn’t a big deal since we knew we just had to paddle upstream until we saw the lights of our lodging. Eventually we got back, and in time to grab dinner at the restaurant. After we ordered, Andre washed the rafts before our food arrived. We’ve both been on a salad kick, maybe because veggie dinners are hard to procure in a van without a fridge. We got a few drinks afterwards to bid my twenties farewell before heading back to the treehouse.

The next morning, we prepared to cross into Honduras. We thought Honduras would be the easy crossing and Nicaragua would be tough. Here’s why: 1) Honduras accepted covid vaccine cards where Nicaragua required a negative PCR covid test within 72 hours of crossing, and 2) Both Honduras and Nicaragua required online “prechequeo” applications, but we found out at the Hammock Plantation Hostel that the one for Nicaragua should be filled out 7 days prior to crossing. We were now gambling with time and what we could get away with. We didn’t have any plans for Honduras, though I’m sure we would have found some beautiful places if we had time to explore. We hoped to cross into Honduras, spend a night half way, then cross into Nicaragua – but that would not give the prechequeo the required 7 days to pass approval. We decided we’d figure that out after we crossed into Honduras.

It turned out, the Honduras crossing was the nightmare. We woke up happy, though slightly overhung, in the treehouse and accepted the fact that 30 is upon me, like it or not. In happy spirits we made our way to the Honduras border after refueling on gas and snacks. We did hit an unexpected road block of some cows along the way.

We eventually left El Salvador and crossed the bridge into Honduras at 4 PM. During this transition, a man in a blue uniform shirt came up to us and took our documents to cancel Savannah’s TIP (temporary import permit) for El Salvador. We assumed he worked for aduanas/customs and gave him the paperwork, which he did cancel and provided us copies. After we canceled our TIP, we went through immigrations to leave (there were never stamps in or out of El Salvador due to the CA4 agreement). With that cancelation, we were finished with the El Salvador exit procedure. He then told us to follow him on his motorbike to Honduras, we passed a ton of semi trucks by following him and driving on the oncoming traffic side of the road (I hated this). We wondered how long it takes for these trucks to cross as drivers were milling about next to their rigs without the border in sight. Eventually we did make it to the bridge and the blue shirt man asked us for our 4 original documents – registration, passport, license, and title. About the title… I didn’t bring the original. My parents and I thought it would be dangerous to bring the title, if the van was stolen with the title inside, I had no hopes of getting her back. And a title should really only be necessary if I was planning on selling her, so I left it in Grand Island, NY and only brought copies. This is where our troubles began…

Despite having the copy of the title and my name being on both the title copy and original registration for Savannah, we were told we may not be able to cross. At this point, there were three men involved in our attempt at a crossing. The blue-shirt motorcycle guy had the original El Salvador TIP that was canceled, and now a lean man and an Aduanas officer had my original license and registration and headed off to the main building. They told us to drive forward, park and go through immigration then they’d meet us. We were beginning to feel suspicious and that we were targeted as foreigners. We went through immigration no problem, and instantly once we were done, the lean man showed up and told us to come outside. He said to wait with the van for the inspection officer until the paperwork was done. We felt we were doomed and that we lost control of our situation. And soon it was confirmed that we were. After waiting around the van for at least an hour, and Andre checking in the building to see what was going on, they returned with the new Honduras TIP but withheld it from us. Since we did not have the original title, they claimed they had to pay off three men at $50 USD each to pass the permit, and if we didn’t pay, we wouldn’t get the permit.

I pulled every card I could, except the birthday card (which actually would have been genuine!). I knew we were naïve to think someone was simply just helping us out, and we had planned to tip him, but not $150 USD. The young boy who helped us through Guatemala was surely also a “fixer” (a term we later read that applied to people helping cross borders and expect a tip), but he didn’t withhold our documents hostage until we paid the right price. I tried explaining that we thought they were just being nice and it would have been right to tell us ahead of time that it would cost this much to have them “help.” I do think if we realized he was a fixer, we could have gone through the process ourselves and would have felt better with the outcome of whatever bribe we had to pay. Throughout the argument, the lean man kept interrupting me and talking over the blue-shirt guy, who I thought I was actually getting somewhere with. It felt like he was trying to confuse us and hoped we would make a rash decision to just pay up. They said we only had until 6:30 PM until the border would close and if we didn’t pay, we’d have to return to El Salvador. Eventually, after about a half hour of haggling, I got them down to $20 USD per person (for supposedly three people) who moved our TIP along. We actually only had enough cash to pay $50 USD, so in the end we paid a third of the bribe. We got our Honduras TIP for ~$95 USD, after the true cost of $45 USD to import a vehicle into the country plus the $50 bribe. It felt like a steep price to pay to be in Honduras for less than 24 hours. As we drove away, we were feeling pretty down and I hoped this would be a low point for thirty, being its first day. But after some research, Andre read that they do in fact often require the original title at this border, so we would have had to pay a bribe anyway, who knows how much.

We got gas station chicken empanadas for dinner and parked outside of a local hot springs to sleep. We slept restlessly with dogs barking and stress dreams. In the early morning hours we woke up to the van shaking so we pounded on the walls and made Savannah beep by hitting the lock key twice. It was time to leave Honduras. I’m sure it is an awesome place to adventure, and the green hillside did look enchanting. First impressions are rough if they’re not great, but I wouldn’t say I’d never return to Honduras.

Next was cracking the riddle to get into Nicaragua. We had applied for the online prechequeo only 2 days before. We either could cross before the 7 day pre-check requirement and risk doing a covid PCR test (good for only 72 hours) only to be denied, or we could wait in Honduras for another 5 days, then get the test and try to cross. We also had the wrong border on the application for our anticipated crossing… We had planned to cross at Hawthorne (El Espino) but after contacting the only lab we could find in Honduras that does covid PCR tests, they said they were having trouble with officials denying the validity of the tests at this border – they recommended crossing at Guasaule. So that’s what we did… we jumped the gun on the 7 days and planned to cross 4 days early. After being shaken awake next to the hot springs, we drove to Choluteca and paid $50 USD each for a covid PCR test. Once we got our negative results, we drove another hour or so to the border, presented the tests and were never asked about the prechequeo.

The PCR tests were accepted and it wasn’t an issue that I didn’t have Savannah’s original title. Moments after we walked into immigration, an officer tripped the fire alarm and it screeched throughout the process of our crossing. Once it was our turn, an aduana officer greeted us with a smile and said “Welcome,” jokingly as he motioned towards the alarms. We were supposed to have extra copies of our PCR tests (besides the ones we gave to the first health check point) but when we didn’t have them he shrugged and continued processing our documents. We met a French couple going through immigrations at the booth next to us. They had just tried to get into Honduras a half an hour ago from Nicaragua (we had seen them in the immigrations office as we were leaving Honduras), but France only gave one dose of the Pfizer vaccine and so they were denied entry. They were now trying to get back into Nicaragua, then fly to Mexico and backpack around there for a bit before heading back to France.

For customs, the only item searched (rather x-rayed) from the van was Andre’s backpack with our laptops in it. We had read on iOverlander that some crossings into Nicaragua took up to 6 hours with thorough checks of vans. Maybe Savannah was just too full and chaotic, or maybe it was because it was a Saturday, but the officer simply peeked inside and said we were good. The woman filling out our TIP did ask about an original title but I just replied, “No lo tengo” (I don’t have it) and gave her a copy. This was fine and she finished our paperwork while she watched a soap opera on her phone.

A man had been hanging around the customs office and had told us where to move the van when we finished with customs. After being recently burned at our Honduras crossing, we tried not to imply that we wanted his help. But he was saying useful things like where to park and where to go next. When he hopped on his bike to lead us out of the border, we knew we were duped again. He rode ahead and arranged car insurance, which is mandatory in Nicaragua. After our paperwork was finalized, he asked for a tip. We knew though that he already scraped off the top of our insurance price, which he quoted as $20 USD and should only be $13 USD. At this point though we were literally strapped for cash, we gave him what we had left but it wasn’t enough. He claimed he could cancel our permit, but after we triple checked we had all of our documents, we knew he was bluffing. He asked for $10 USD, but we didn’t have it. He asked for a gift instead, like a t-shirt, and in a quick response, Andre pulled out an unopened iced coffee we had just bought at a gas station before the border, and a lighter that had been lingering around. I don’t think this what the man had wanted but we all couldn’t help but laugh and he accepted the favor. We happily moved on too, and left border crossings in the rear view mirror for a few days.

Now in Nicaragua and with the border crossings completed, I couldn’t ignore that I felt worse and we sought out a hospital – urgent care isn’t really a thing down here. A couple hours of driving later, we found a hospital in León and I was able to get the medication I needed, and for only $3 USD. The medicine seems to be working and I’m stunned at how little it cost compared to the US. I have international health insurance that I pay ~$42 per month for, but for this I won’t bother even filling out a claim. I guess it’s good to have in case a major health issue arises, but it does put the cost of medical care into perspective.

We’re planning on relaxing and hanging around Nicaragua for a few days. More soon!

Andre’s posts here: El Salvador & Honduras

Updated map of campsites, here 🙂

One thought on “Turning 30 in El Salvador & Honduras

  1. Well, I’m sending good mojo that this is the last problem you will have! Not the best way to celebrate a new decade … which, by the way, HAPPY BIRTHDAY, KELLY!! I look forward to the next installment and I’ll bet it will be about the wonderful next few days. Enjoy, have fun and be safe!
    Love, Aunt Pat

    Liked by 1 person

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