I had heard about the murders and kidnappings that happen in San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, Honduras’s main and capital city respectively. While these stories and incidents did stick in the back of my mind, I did not let them deter me from booking a shuttle ticket heading to La Ceiba, the port city en route to my desired destination of the island of Utila.
It was 8am on a Sunday morning and I had reserved my spot in a tourist van the previous night at Big Foot Hostel in León, a common backpacker outpost for travelers seeking fun, excitement, and thrilling things-to-do in Nicaragua. The van sat twelve but only five ladies (myself included) had signed up for the day’s 13-hour commute into northern Honduras.
The Canadian girl, Mary, had been informed that there was no entry fee into Honduras and that if we were asked to pay, we should simply decline.
We exited the Nicaraguan border and paid the exit fee of two-dollars. Simple enough. Then we entered the Honduran side. We walked into a small building and stood on a line that read “Immigración” by a desk window. To the right was an office with a closed door that displayed the same title. All I could think to myself was: do not get lead into THAT office. We were not on the line for more than a minute when the door opened and a portly man wearing a blue uniform-ish outfit stepped out and looked directly at us.
“Bienvenidos,” he said and motioned us to come inside the office. Crap! I thought. We stood out like sore thumbs with our blonde hair and travel attire.
We went into the office and were motioned to sit down. The man hugged our van driver who had accompanied us inside. He then handed each of us maps of the country, welcoming us and saying wonderful things about the land he called home, smiling the entire time. He went to his desk and opened the top drawer where he took out a stamp, inkpad and receipt book. I looked inside and saw Nicaraguan, Honduran, and American currency.
Next he informed us that there was an entry fee of $3 that he wrote down on the receipt paper, only we had to pay $4 because that was the actual fee. Mary started speaking to him in Spanish questioning the logic behind this circumstance. He looked at us puzzled and then agreed that $3 would be the entry fee. When one of the girls went to pay in Honduran Lempiras, he claimed to have no money, a blatant lie as I had a direct view of the money located in his desk. When another tried to pay with a $20 bill, he claimed to have “no cambio,” another lie. The girls ended up having the exact change and paid him. When I went to pay with a $10 bill, he again claimed to have no change, even though the girls had just paid him with the appropriate amount of money.
Eventually we all paid, left the building, frustrated about what had just taken place but glad that the fee wasn’t higher than $3. The others did not agree and decided that writing an angry review on Trip Advisor would be the best way to mollify the situation since the hostel’s van driver happened to “be in on the situation.” I was just happy that they didn’t make us pay more money and that the police were not the ones bribing us.
The ride was pleasant but long. After six hours, our driver, Miguel, stopped to rest. When we continued on, Mary and I began to notice a slight change Miguel’s behavior. His driving maneuvers were becoming faster and more erratic making quick, jerky breaks behind the vehicles in front of ours. I just figured it was a Central American thing. Mary mentioned to me that she thought he could be using cocaine due to his spastic hand motions, the constant need to touch his face and neck, and the irregularity of his driving.
As the afternoon turned into evening and eventual nightfall, Miguel’s driving technique was a constant pattern of extreme speed followed by rapid breaks. While I yearned for our destination of La Ceiba to come as soon as possible, all I hoped at this point was to make it out of our vehicle alive. By the time hour eleven arrived he made a phone call and about twenty minutes later picked up someone to take over while he sat in the passenger seat. Even while his eyes were closed, Miguel still patted his face and twitched in his seat. For the next two hours the stress I had felt melted away and all my focus was to enter La Ceiba.
Central America I have come to regard as the new Wild West. It is a place where you will find corrupt officials and cops who accept bribes, especially if there happens to be a U.S. dollar involved. Cocaine, one of the sources behind gang violence, happens to be readily available. While most of my adventures in Nicaragua, Honduras, and eventually Guatemala have been reasonably free of problems, I mentally prepared myself for potential trouble that can likely occur. Hiding money in secret compartments/clothing, not traveling with any illegal drugs, and carrying a small amount of U.S. dollars and currency native to the country I am entering is the only advice I can give to those questioning the safety for entering and leaving Central American countries by land.
Since that trip into Honduras, I have been in quite a few vans and buses where the drivers did not seem to be under the influence of anything other than caffeine. This experience will not stop me from traveling to the countries there, yet I will be aware if I see anything fishy or any drug-induced behavior around me.
Have you had a similar experience with an erratic driver? Were customs ever problematic due to international fees?