Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Borders and Chicken Buses

One of the most interesting and at times funny, but mostly disturbing and annoying thing that any traveler in Central America has to deal with, are borders. 

Four of the 8 countries in Central America have created a CA-4 agreement, indicating that borders between these countries should be open and people can go freely from one to the other, similar to the Schengen agreement in Europe. One small issue: this is not the case at all, as we unfortunately experienced and blogged about a few weeks ago.

The borders are open - you can freely walk passed every checkpoint. However, if you don't get your passports stamped, you'll be illegal and with the police often checking passports in cars and buses, the chance of getting caught is pretty high.

So in the end, you do have to go through the painful process of taking all your luggage from the car/bus, waiting in line, exiting a country (which sometimes involves paying a legal or illegal fee), walking a few hundreds meters through no-mans land, waiting in line again and entering the next country (which again sometimes involves paying a legal or illegal fee).


Here we are in no-mans land

Travelers are doing this in 30+ degrees Celcius with high humidity, walking with a backpack on super dirty streets occupied by people trying to sell you all kinds of stuff, street dogs and other animals. If you're really unlucky, a group of kids will get all the luggage from your bus while it's driving slow or standing in traffic near the border, just so they can mandatory walk or bike it across no-mans for you (at a price). Or they just steal it from you and take it to the next country before you can even get there.

Today we crossed the Sixaola border from Costa Rica to Panama. From stories we read online, we learned that immigration on the Panamanian side always wants to see a flight or bus ticket out of Panama. If you don't have a ticket, entry will be denied, or you can buy a future bus ticket back to Costa Rica at a nearby office just so you can pass the border (which suddenly costs 5x the normal price). Or, if you've prepared, you can be 'creative' with a digital flight ticket; they're not really checking details with the airlines.

Luckily enough it went smooth for us today, and our luggage is still with us. No-mans land here was a 500 meter bridge, which is not being maintained by either country.. so it's full of holes and broken parts. Good luck walking there with your luggage :/

Be careful! 

The borders are full of rules and notes such as the one below. One memorable one was in Honduras, where a sign literally said "Entry fee: $3". When we took out dollars, the border control didn't accept it.. we had to pay $3 in Honduran Lempira, which meant going outside, changing $3 (plus exchange rate) to 60 Lempira, go back inside and pay the $3 fee in Lempira's. I'm lost. 

Very kind of Costa Rica to translate this note for all the tourists. Too bad it doesn't make any sense!

After passing the border, we took a 'chicken bus' to get to our destination, Bocas del Torro islands. This is a phenomenon in Central America: old American school buses get a colorful new layer of paint and are used to transport people, goods and animals. Chicken bus is actually the nickname that tourists have given it, officially it's called a Camioneta. It usually costs less then $1 per ride but people are being crammed in the bus, which doesn't have official stops: it will stop anywhere you want or wherever future passengers are waiting, even along the highways. The bus driver usually doubles as DJ, playing loud music (usually reggaeton). Quite an experience!

Chicken bus in San Pedro, Guatemala

Panama Chicken bus (Note: these are luxury seats! Normally they come with original American schoolbus seats!)