If you have signed on for the adventure of touring Central America with your own vehicle (your motorcycle) you have signed on for becoming an experienced hand at handling the clearance of individuals and personal vehicles at the borders of Central American countries. Live with it in as good a humor as you can muster. Be prepared for the slow, methodical (more or less), multi stage process it involves. Understand the process so that you can anticipate what is required, double check along the way and avoid repeated errors.
Guides and Helpers:
There are eager “guides” waiting to “help” you through the process for very large fees in some cases. Remember, the “guides” or “helpers” are not there to help you. They are there to extract as much money as they can off of you before you make it thru the border crossing. You will hear incredible lies and offers. At the Guatemala border we were told that for $100 a bike, we could get the importation documentation that would guarantee us clearance for every border all the way to Panama! They’ll tell you they can do the paperwork for the next border too, if you just pay them now. Do not fall for it. If you have to hire a helper, agree on the cost upfront and tell them to their face that is all you will pay. If they refuse that price, there will be ten others there who will step forward to negotiate with you. Do not hand them large sums of money to get you special clearances, or to buy shortcuts. Your “special” payments will not get you anything more than the normal process. Only pay for receipted services from the officials involved. If you nave to give any "helper" money, do not expect change back. Remember, you really don’t need them, you can do it yourself.
If at all possible, try to avoid exchanging money at border crossings with the local money changers. You will be screwed, pure and simple. Before departing on your trip, go online and determine the official exchange rate for every country you will cross. Write it down so that when you cross the border, you’ll have an idea of what the exchange rate they will offer you SHOULD be. We had more than one occasion where we were offered less than half of the official exchange rate because they assumed we didn’t know what it was. I often simply watched the locals exchange money and determined what rate they were getting. You will never get the local rate, but you should be able to negotiate close to it. Only exchange enough money to get thru the border process, then find a local bank or ATM and do your transactions. ATMs always offer the best rates, even better than exchanging cash at a bank. Be sure to contact your bank before you depart and notify them of the countries you will be visiting so they do not shut off your ATM card when they see a transaction outside the USA. The same goes for your credit card company.
Avoid the major crossing points: As a general rule, avoid crossing borders on the Pan American highway (CA 1 or 1), with one exception to that, the Mexico and Guatemala crossing at La Mesilla. For Honduras/Nicaragua we crossed in the south near Choluteca. For Honduras/Guatemala go for El Espino. You don’t have a choice for Costa Rica/Nicaragua in the South, and the Costa Rican/Panamanian borders are fairly straightforward.
Sundays and/or mornings are best: Mondays and Fridays can be problems. Avoid mid-days as there usually are long lunch breaks. Tired officials, tropical heat, and long lines of truck drivers make afternoons difficult.
Always drive up to the front of the lines: There will be long lines of trucks at the border, some miles long. Just ride past them to whereever the barrier is. Park and start there.
Two important administrative processes must take place. One, you are importing yourself, and Two, you are importing an expensive vehicle into their country.
The first process is controlling the movement of people. This is done by the Immigration officials (Migracion; entrada (entry) or salida (departure). This step the first step at all entry points. Immigration has no interest in your vehicle and/or baggage. For entry they must review your passport and process a valid entry visa before you can proceed to vehicle importation. You must request the Entry form, fill it out, then get back in line to process it. Almost all the countries in Central America use the same form. You typically have to pay for the visa/tourist card, but not necessarily at that location. In Mexico it is paid by going to a bank, in Panama it is paid at the Tourism agency.
The second process is the control of the passage of goods/vehicles. This is done by Customs (Aduana) officers. They, upon verifying your identity document and that you are properly approved to enter the country, will proceed to register your vehicle by noting from your registration (or title) the VIN, make, model etc. of your vehicle. They note your license to drive (international drivers license works fine), and may physically verify your VIN and check your baggage etc. Interestingly in two cases (Mexico and Honduras) a bank is interjected into the process and in Mexico a bank Banjercito does the actual vehicle registration and related fee collection as well as the deregistration upon exiting the country. Customs officers in Mexico basically only look at luggage. (Later on Military checkpoints will also look at your luggage checking for weapons or drugs.) You typically have to pay (receipted) for the vehicle transit to the customs officer or the designated bank payment point (which may or may not be right at the border location). This fee is particularly expensive in Mexico (Peso 317 about $32 @ US$1/10 pesos) and in Honduras (about $22 in Lempiras exchange rate about US$1=15 Lempira) . Honduras adds a step in that you also have to pay the Ministry of Roads and Transport (at a separate office) a $10 fee as well.
Fumigation and related fees:
Additional processes that you may encounter at the border are fumigation (Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama) which usually requires the payment of a small fee ($1or 2, in local currency). In theory this fumigation certificate may be reviewable at phyto-sanitary checkpoints within the country but we were never checked. It never was requested by police or other officials checking us.
An occasional addition is the local municipality taxing you at the border either at exit or entrance. (New York does it when you fly into NY!) You may have to pay $1 for a local municipality tax stamp at exit point (Nicaragua) or at entrance point (Panama). It takes place at informal looking kiosks in some places and people in civilian clothes wander up to you (or you go wake them up) to get their stamp on your visa application form so the Panamanian immigration officers will process your visa and you can then get your tourist card ($5)
The need for copies:
Requiring multiple copies of documents during the border process is unique to the Mexico and Central America travel experience. I’ve ridden in over 40 countries worldwide and have never seen anything like it. El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama may require one or two copies of a single document, but Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras seem to be trying to fund the livelihoods of the border officials by requiring repeated trips to the local copier. Can you save money by bringing copies of your documents from home? No. Don’t waste the time. The reason you have to get copies there is that customs etc. will need copies of the documents they have just stamped and signed (like your immigracion visa application) and these forms will be carrying forward to the next office. You can save money by taking your documents to the copier and paying for it yourself, instead of letting a “helper” do it. If you pay the copy guy, it is twenty or thirty cents per copy. If you pay your helper, it is dollars per copy, and you never see any change back either. In some cases you will have to make two trips to a copy office, I believe our maximum was three. Learn to live with it, it is part of the process.
The border sequence to depart each country of Central America is more casual and much quicker. You have to be sure you clear customs upon exit (with the exception of Mexico when you are transiting south –see the special notes on this) In some cases as in exiting Costa Rica at Penas Blancas the customs clearance office sits alongside the road before you get to the immigration office. (You will remember it because you’ll have processed thru it when you came south into Costa Rica). You also must exit immigration (with the unique exception of Mexico going south again see the special note on Mexico). In some cases you require a form to fill out to exit so you may have to wait in line at the exit window twice.
While in transit keep all your documentation for the county you are in organized and safe. I generally try to keep each country’s documents in one Ziploc bag. You will usually end up with numerous documents, some only tiny slips of paper, which must be surrendered to other people on your way out of the border, so keeping track of them is important.
Know where the VIN is and have it wiped clean enough to be legible.. Make sure they get your VIN number right on your forms! If you are stopped by police, or checked at the exit of the country, and they discover your VIN is not correct, it will become a major hassle. Always double-check your information as they process you! On at least one occasion we found out they had typed the wrong VIN on our paperwork. Just like with any legal paperwork, always check every line before you sign anything they hand you at the border.