Border Rip Off

In, Ecuador, way back in May, we bumped into Dan Walsh the columnist from ‘Bike’ magazine. We spent a pleasant evening drinking beer with him at the Turtle’s Head British Pub in Quito. Dan is riding an F650 Dakar from New York to South America, covering parts of our route in reverse along with his friend Tris on an XL600 Honda. We had a grand evening swapping tales from the road and picking each other’s brains for tips and pitfalls to watch out for along the way. Dan warned us of one border crossing in particular – Honduras where we would get ripped off for sure. Honduran customs stung them for $50 apiece and they had spent 7 long hot and sticky hours arguing for some justification why they had to pay this money. It supposedly covers administration costs and fees for granting permission to ride on their roads. In reality, there are no clear tariffs and it is a nice little money earner – hard dollars – for the crooks who pass as Honduran Customs Officers. In the end the Customs guys threatened to close up shop leaving Dan & Tris stranded between two borders. Dan’s advice was, don’t waste the time arguing – bite your tongue and pay the money.

Having so pleasantly exited Nicaragua, we now confronted the entry to Honduras. First off, we politely refused the services of the crowd of Tramitadores who surrounded the 2 bikes, at least until we sussed out what the procedure was. Immigration first, was straightforward – $4 each to process our passports and stamp us into the country, with a nice receipt for each transaction. OK, so far so good. Next up, the Aduana’s Office – Customs – to clear the two bikes. Mags waited outside with the bikes whilst I took our papers to establish the procedure. A tidily dressed lady was eating some tortillas and rice. I wished her a ‘Bon Provecho’ and waited smiling while she finished her lunch. Down to business next. I politely requested what I needed to do to enter Honduras with our two bikes, explaining we were on a charity ride from Chile to Alaska and were really looking forward to Honduras as we’d heard such lovely things about their country. She politely replied that I could do this but it would cost $42 for each bike, for a permit to ride on their roads. No published tariff or rate, just pay the money. Oh! Of course I would get a receipt – but take it or leave it, it costs $42 each. Two very pretty young girls, Gloria & Ebony had followed me into the office and were hanging around whilst this procedure was explained to me. They were in league with the Customs staff and further explained that if I didn’t use their services as Tramitadoras, it would take Customs an extra hour and a half to process our paperwork. It was straight blackmail, with Tidy Customs Lady smiling beatifically over the negotiation. I took Dan’s advice and agreed, but the whole thing stank of corruption and sat uneasily on my conscience, the knowledge that I was standing there like a stupid sweaty Gringo, whilst these smart-ass lady crooks ripped me off while I watched. In all of South America we were never charged any customs fees at any border crossing. Now in Central America what started as a few dollars admin costs in Panama was escalating at each successive crossing such that it was becoming a major expenditure. I paid the $84 to start the ball rolling. To be fair, the two Tramitadoras were excellent. I gave them our vehicle logbooks and passports (one set each) and they set off around the various offices to get forms typed up and various documents photocopied. To begin with I tried to follow them to see if I could suss what the procedure was, but they were lightning quick and were dashing here there and everywhere to the extent that I lost track and just sat with Mags in a cool shaded spot watching the action, hoping that they wouldn’t rip us off further by simply disappearing with the documents. After just over an hour it was all done and I was glad that we’d used their services, as with our limited Spanish it would have taken ages to work out what to do next. I gave them a few dollars each for their hard work and all were pleased. There was only one problem. The bank that issued the receipts had suffered a system failure and they couldn’t issue any receipts today. But don’t worry, we were all stamped up with our 90-day Visas and vehicle permits and the receipt was just a formality. Alarm bells were ringing as I recalled Rene, our Canadian friend from the Bear Tracking station in Ecuador, saying that he got ripped off for $20 at the border crossing on the way out for not having a receipt under similar circumstances. It was a ‘fait accompli’ – I was handed all our bits and told we could go. So looks like more fun on the way out!

The good thing was that the bad taste from the border transactions didn’t last long once we entered Honduras. The hilly road that climbed out of Nicaragua now wound through ever-more massive and impressive mountain scenery. The road was in a good state of repair, with it’s fair share of potholes all neatly filled and we were soon zipping along towards our first stop, Tegucigalpa – the capital city. The only thing of any real note here was that the city has another of those dodgy statues in the Central Plaza. This one is for General Morazan a national hero and when the town officials found how much a bronze would cost to commission they went for the cheaper, second-hand statue of an obscure Napoleonic officer and he now stands in the plaza labelled up as General Morazan! Normally we would avoid places like ‘Tegas’ (as it is known for short). A big suburban sprawl with its share of grotty markets, run down buildings and polluted, congested streets, we were soon choking in rush hour traffic as we tried to find a hotel for the night. A few locals tried to help but they were over-friendly, recommending places that were too far away, with obscure and complex directions in Spanish, that we would have no chance of following in the dark tangled streets. We eventually found the ‘Nan-King’, a Chinese run place and soon had the bikes of the street and in the lobby. Next morning Tegas looked no better in the daylight. Street vendors had set up stall outside the hotel and we had the usual audience of onlookers fascinated at the pile of stuff we were loading on to the bikes. The Hondurans are a friendly bunch and soon we had everyone queuing up to wish us a safe onward journey with handshakes all round.

We spent the next 2 days up at a place called ‘Valle de Angeles’, a pleasant little bolthole in a stunning mountain valley just outside Tegas. We needed time to do some maintenance on the bikes and to make & mend our clothes and bike kit. We had a pleasant little Cabaña where I fixed an oil leak on Maggie’s bike – what I suspected to be a leaking sump plug turned out to be oil seeping from a long bolt just in front of the oil filter housing. A smattering of silicone sealant did the job, and KG now no longer marks her spot! We also planned our route onwards through Honduras. Whilst Valle de Angeles is very pleasant, it is also very expensive. The President of Honduras has a place here, as do most of the elite from Tegas, which is only a half hour’s drive away. We hoped we would bump into to him to tell him a few things about his lousy customs routines!

On into Honduras! Our first destination was Lago de Yojoa (pronounced Yo-ho-ah) and a grand day of motorcycling lay ahead to get us there. The road wound and twisted through pine forested mountainous terrain, not the crappy man-made pine forests we have in Europe and the US, where there is a blackout a few feet into the impenetrable gloom of the dense growth. No, Honduras possesses a very beautiful natural pine covered landscape – lots of grand individual lonesome pines dotted randomly across the hillsides. A jollop of blue-sky overhead and a fine road surface completed the ingredients for a great ride. Sometimes, when touring on a bike the scenery takes over, demanding your every attention as you ride along through stunning landscapes and vistas, neck craning not to miss any of it, forcing you to take it easy on the bike and ignoring the ride on the road. Today whilst the scenery was beautiful, it was balanced and didn’t intrude too much on a cracking road that had us whooping and yee-harring as we sped along in the glorious sunshine. 100 miles of top scratching roads that lead us to Lago de Yojoa, Honduras largest lake, and a pleasant little hotel at Peñas Blancas.

We had a morning at the ‘Cataratas de Pulhapanzak’, a 40 metre high waterfall set in a quiet little country park. We weren’t expecting much – after seeing Iguazú Falls how can any waterfall ever compare? – but were pleasantly surprised to find a dreamy hidden chasm with a delightful cascade with little rock pools at the bottom, where we spent an hour or two swimming in the chill mountain waters. A right little paradise! In the afternoon we took a hike to visit our first Mayan ruins at Las Naranjos in another little country park. The ruins turned out to be grassy mounds surrounded by jungle, so there was nothing much to see. However this was compensated by a cool trail leading us off into jungle with some of the best bird-watching to date on the trip. We were constantly surrounded by whoops and trills as we walked along craning our necks trying to spot the bird-life up in the canopy. Sadly it was also ‘Mosquito Central’ and we ended up fleeing the trail after being eaten alive by the little pests. In Peñas Blancas itself there is not much in the way of eateries so we had to ride out in the evenings to some of the more expensive lakeside resorts, where we could get good food at reasonable prices. On our last night, whilst riding back the few miles to town in the dark, I was chatting with Mags on the back when our headlight beam suddenly illuminated a big Armadillo right in the middle of the road. The armour-plated beastie was trundling across the road when we suddenly appeared hurtling towards him at 50mph. Hitting an Armadillo at that speed would be like hitting a speed bump with a fair chance of coming off. As in all the best collisions, events were suddenly trickling by in slow motion. I took evasive action to try to avoid the little chap, throwing the bike out across the road. He decided to run for it but then changed his mind and I watched in horror as he did a U-turn in front of our approaching behemoth. He froze and I swear I could see the terror in his dilated little piggy eyes. Then I hit him. At first I though I’d run over his head killing him for sure, but he had managed to turn right round and we rode right over his little armoured tail! It scared the life out of us but we were glad he survived to tell the tale.

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