Into Nicaragua... It Sucked.
Updated: Dec 7, 2020
So I left this morning in a good mood, having slept well in the rustic hotel in Danli. It was a good place and a tiny bit rough about the edges but enjoyable - the staff and host were super nice.
It was a warm day, but the breeze felt good on the bike as I rolled toward Las Manos, the "safe" crossing into Nicaragua I'd been told to use by the border official in Copán. I'd read up on it online and felt prepared to cross the next border, more so mentally than physically. Each one seems bit like leaping into a snake pit and not knowing if your boots are tall enough.
The long line of parked trucks on the side of the road told me I was approaching and soon I was rolling up to the rope into the border area. Several people were signaling differing things already and as I started to park from what I thought was a real official, another person waved me through and dropped the rope. I was directed by a guy in a tan vest that looked official to park on the left by the Honduras Aduana/Immigration, and he began walking me through the process, moving me to the front of the line and such. I was never quite sure if he was a real Honduran worker to expedite the process or if he was a fixer. I was constantly harassed by money changers at every step, but things went reasonably well until I was taken to the Honduran police office where I expected a cursory look at papers.
Instead I was taken into a dark inspection room and told to open all my pockets, tank bag, jacket and everything. All this process, while someone else had my passport. The policeman asked me to remove everything but pants and shirt, patted me down, checked every piece of paper, counted every nickel and bill in my wallet and went completely through my jacket including the armor pouches. He was determined to find something it seemed, and watched my eyes continuously. He finally indicated to drop my riding pants to check for hidden stuff I guess, but it was a bit weird. He finally seemed satisfied, sort of, and indicated I could go. That was a first and very weird experience. I will admit to being chuffed that despite his thorough search of my gear, he had not discovered my emergency stash of US currency.
The most disturbing thing about this border process is that your documents and passport are taken by officials and you don't see them again until other certain processes have occurred. It was a bit more disturbing than I liked this particular time, because it felt like it could easily turn into a shakedown. It just didn't feel right.
So much was going on I don't remember the whole process now, but it wasn't too insane getting out of Honduras, other than being in a darkened, closet-sized room with a Honduran cop and your riding pants down.
Getting into Nicaragua was a bit trickier. From the moment the gate was raised and I crossed into Nicaragua, it got much more confusing than expected. Official looking guys with embroidered shirts began directing me where to go and to show my passport, paperwork and other stuff. It was hard to tell if they were officials or not, but it became apparent they weren't as a bit of time passed. One got copies for me, another took me from official to official, introduced me to the insurance guy, then disappeared with all my papers and came back with a real immigration official who wanted to know where my hotel was and I told him I didn't have one yet. He disappeared and didn't return. The handler said the fee for the immigration was $12 US which I knew, but then said the official needed a "propina" for coming to me personally - and a $20 bill would suffice. The racket had begun.
Much time passed as I sat waiting with my money hungry handlers who would disappear randomly. It was obvious they were in league with the officials, who would from time to time come out of their portable building and motion to the handlers, then they would all disappear behind the building. Nothing happened for a long time, until I was told that my situation was "muy complicado" which I guessed was due to not having a hotel reserved. Even the policia got involved. Luckily I had data connection on my phone and just picked a hotel name from Granada somewhere. As a policeman came out to talk to the handlers, I just stuck the name in front of his face. He texted it to someone and disappeared.
As I waited, another government official of some sort sat at the luggage inspection booth with me, finally speaking in English. It was the first English I'd heard and I asked him about his job. He was there to poll tourists who were leaving Nicaragua about their stay and how much money they spent. I wanted to say, "Stop the border bullshit and Nicaragua will get rich quick!" but I didn't. He seemed the only good guy in the area. He asked if I was traveling alone, then got concerned when I said yes. He warned me "the highway was very dangerous" for solo travelers and to be extremely careful.
Probably close to an hour later the first dirty official came out and asked me about the hotel and wrote it down, disappearing again. 20 minutes later a handler came back with some documents and told me to go to the immigration window, where I was put in front of the line and the girl did some work on the passport, handed me a bill for 320 cordobas, to which I gave her a 500 since that's what the changers gave me. You'd think it was a million dollar bill and they acted as if they had no change and there was tumult. All they do all day is collect money so why they do the bullshit song and dance is beyond me. 20 more minutes passed at the window for no reason, until the handler just reached in and took my passport from the girl and ran it to the aduana window. I stood and stood until finally she gave me the receipt and change.
In the line next to me, a young backpacker was trying to explain that he didn't have a hotel lined up in Nicaragua since he was tent camping. There was much tension and ridiculousness inside the booth. I finally interrupted him and told him to just pick a hotel anywhere and give them an address. That solved the problem quickly and he thanked me.
A word of warning to travelers reading this, always pick a hotel destination before hitting the border even if you aren't going there. I learned later that this was common at border crossings.
I had now spent a lot of cash and had none of my documents in hand. Passport, title, drivers license were all in various places other than with me. I was frustrated and tired of the bullshit but at least I was at the last window, where after a while I finally got everything back and got to go buy insurance for the bike. I paid the handlers and as I was leaving, one of them pointed down the road and said "Policia. Veinticinco U.S. dollares" He was warning me that down the road the police would stop me and $25 US would get me out of it. Before the gate was finally lifted, yet another "official" came over from a booth outside the gate and demanded a dollar. The handlers said to pay it and I got a receipt, then got the feck out of there.
I'd been told that the borders of El Salvador and Nicaragua were corrupt and the officials and handlers worked hand in hand to run up costs for their pockets which definitely seems true. Welcome to Nicaragua folks.
I said a prayer for the road ahead and tried to stay at the speed limit, but it was hard not to run fast. I'd been warned that the tickets for speeding in Nic are very expensive so I bit my tongue and rode slow. The road was very, very nice and went through beautiful landscapes, but I wasn't interested. Around a curve there was indeed a police stop, and as I rolled in both cops were busy with two local motorcyclists, so I nailed it on through. Several more times there were police, but always engaged and could only look, so I guess my prayers were answered.
The town of Esteli came up about 30 minutes later, with rain clouds looming near. I found out my cell wasn't getting data so I couldn't locate any hotels, and the one I remembered happened to be in the Garmin GPS, which of course led me to a false address. I rode around town until I spotted one and luckily they had a room available. Parking was somewhat of a question and they indicated I could leave the bike in front. I didn't feel too good about that. I've had an anxiety since being here, partly due to the border crap, but also just in my gut.
Reminders of Nicaragua's not-too-distant-past
I find it fascinating that US dollars are the preferred currency here. Everywhere and everyone accepts them. Seems a bit funny after the socialist revolution and hatred of the US by Daniel Ortega and his goons.
Torrential rains hit and lasted for hours, the hotel manager finally arriving and telling me I should park the bike in safe parking down the street. In a rain break after dark, I walked several blocks down and never saw a parking area, other than a large lot that appeared to be a junkyard. Turns out that was the place and I took the bike down to the muddy yard. I have carried a bike cover this entire trip and finally felt the need to use it.
A break in the rain!
Back at the hotel, the rains continue roaring down and the streets are rivers. Rain. It's what's for dinner.