About Us

My photo
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Brian & Deya met in Vancouver Canada. After a few years together we were married and made choices. One was not to have children the other was not to take life for granted. The rest is yet to come.

May 16, 2011

Frontera Honduras – El Amatillo to Costa Rica


Bullshit! Absolute bullshit, I know people complain about this border and I’m sure a few have had an easy cross but ours was brutal.  But I’ll go back to our trip through El Salvador first.

El Salvador is nice and we had heard good things about it.  Of course the advice on the streets is to avoid Honduras but not El Salvador.  It was hot and we were making average time, the roads are pretty good and we stuck to the coast.  The coast for the most part is mountainous and rocky beaches.  By the time we got to Puerto La Libertad it was getting late and we found a safe place to stay.  It was out of our budget but again, the locals are all keen on telling us about the murderous gangs looming in the bushes.  They say it is not like the more civilized Cartels in Mexico who just go about their business and bury those in the wrong place at the wrong time or just those involved.  It’s more about the vicious youths who group together and get involved in gangs that used violence to get anything they want, even valueless things.
It just about got really ugly here, the first border check going into Honduras
After three nights on the coast we headed for the border early, our intention was to tackle this well known and difficult border during daylight with plenty of time to spare.  I told Deya that about 5 kilometres before the border we would stop, rest and water up and get prepared for the difficulties of the crossing.  I’m not sure why this never seems to work but as we rounded a corner about 5 kilometres out, there was a gas station on the left, I thought we should stop there and get ready then I heard on our right some guy yelling and running out of the bushes towards us.  We kept riding, I figured better to hit the next stop instead of stopping where people come out of bushes.
The road is long and straight, it’s hot and dry and other than the GPS telling us we are close you get a sense that you are out of sight and out of mind.  That is when I suddenly found a blue Nissan truck beside me in the oncoming lane.  The truck had 4 or 5 young men in it, wearing wife beater shirts and ball caps.  They were yelling at me and pointing to pull over and using their truck to try to herd me off the road.  I held my ground and waved them passed mouthing, “Get the fuck off the road!”.  Meanwhile I was thinking, is this an attempted robbery or hijacking?  An oncoming car was forced into the ditch because of these maniacs trying to overtake me.  I decided to hit my breaks, they would either overshoot and come to a stop or slow down in parallel.  They slowed down with me and started pulling in front to cut me off, just then Deya dropped two gears and hammered it passed us, just as we had rehearsed for this scenario.
People just hang out waiting to confuse the coins from your
pockets, the guys on the bridge were stopping traffic for
customs...?

Deya and I had discussed what to do in the scenarios of being overtaken or forced off the road, as well as coming to a barricaded road.  In this case I would attempt to slow the vehicle as bait, when the vehicle is slowed or stopped enough Deya would initiate the escape and I would follow.  Not many vehicles, especially down here, have the stuff to take off as fast as us so this would give us a chance to escape.  It worked as we had practiced.

I quickly caught up to Deya a couple of kilometres down the road and as the road rounded some corners, a line up of transport trucks appeared.  This was the first border point.  We came in pretty fast and right by the first police officer.  Two more came out with pistols and shotguns and ground us to a halt.  Deya told them we were being chased by some thugs in a truck.  I pulled up on Deya’s right and started getting off the bike when the thugs in the truck surrounded us like a pack of wolves, they were poking at us, grabbing at the bikes and shouting, completely dwarfing the police that were present. 

My first instinct was to fight, not understanding the language, but my mind was grappling with why the police didn’t seem concerned that they did not have control of the situation and these thugs could just burst in and take over the area.  I barked at the police, the aggressive and angry tone was clear, “What the fuck is going on here?”  Deya told the police officers that they needed to leave us alone and get these thugs away from us because her husband is about to lose it.  He clears the thugs out and sends them away.  We take a breather on the side of the road while the cop returns to stopping trucks and letting them through, I could not see the value in his presence. There was a Customs (Aduana) official there with a clipboard doing something.  It turned out the thugs are called ‘helpers’, of which I am sure they are there to help you empty your purse.

When we were ready Deya went over to the Aduana officer to ask questions.  It turns out we needed to get a stamp here and a photocopy of something.  Ridiculous but necessary process I guess, the Aduana officer took Deya to the side away from the police officer and told her not to talk to those thugs and only deal with Customs and Immigration folks with uniforms and in the offices.  Note taken, we moved on.

Guns, blood and high tension - this was the second time that morning
it just about got really ugly
We got to the Immigration office and went through the process, registered in the computer and checked the bikes out of the country.  The Immigration officer was again clear with Deya not to talk to anyone who was not in uniform or in the office else we would be at risk of extortion.  We typically found that the officials are good people surrounded by dirt bags, a hard work environment for sure.  They all had the same complaints about being threatened and having their cars damaged for helping tourists despite the ‘helpers’.

The next stop was at a bridge entering Honduras, it was the final stop for El Salvador, we dropped a piece of paper and passed.  At the end of the bridge, now in El Amatillo-Honduras side, there is yet another check point.  There were police officers and people with uniforms standing around.  We were stopped on the bridge by some random youths and then approached by a guy with a plastic ID in his pocket.  In no way did this guy seem official.  Deya said we needed to go directly to the Aduana office but the guy demanded all of our papers and passports.  Once they have them they will extort money from you to get them back.  Deya said NO, she’ll talk directly to the office, the man became upset and said she has no choice and must trust him. Deya drove past him, the man punched her pannier cutting open his knuckles.  He showed me his bloodied fist and I just looked at him like he was an idiot, which he was.  He then went over to complain that Deya had run him down causing the injury.  A police officer nearby told Deya to just leave and head for the Aduana office or this could get ugly. 

At this point an actual Customs agent came over to walk us to the unmarked office of the Aduana official who would process the paperwork.  For the first time, despite the level of intensity we had seen that day, I thought this situation might just spiral out of control, Deya admitted she felt the same.  Once we got over to the office Deya made quick work of getting our passports processed at Migracion but the Aduana officer was in El Salvador and then out for lunch.  The helpers would all claim, and we saw them produce for a few tourists, that they could get the documents cleared in mere minutes, we had to wait for hours.  The funny thing was and I hope none of those tourists get in trouble when they try to leave, but the official was out for lunch and at a meeting and she was the only person who could sign those documents.  So I’m not sure what the ‘helpers’ were giving to the unsuspecting tourists.  People can expect to pay $50-$200 USD for the helpers when the price for entry is $3 USD and the vehicle is $35 USD.  It’s a simple process too.

While we waited in the heat and the ogles of sorted folks wanting to know the cost of the bikes, I saw many ‘helpers’ taking blonde haired blue eyed tourists around corners and off in different directions not even close to the Migracion and Aduana offices.  By about 2 pm the officer had returned to a line up of people needing signatures.  By the time we got our turn and asked the right questions it was now 4:20 pm.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough money to pay Customs, so the Aduana got Deya clear to go back into El Salvador to get some cash, she road alone.
My guts where turning, one of our rules is to never get separated and here we were at the worst border in one of the most dangerous Central American countries and Deya has to go off alone to get money from an ATM with thugs and shit rats circling like vultures.  I don’t know what I was thinking but I should have gone, however the language barrier might have made it more difficult.  About 20 minutes later Deya returned pumped up and shaking slightly.  She had headed across, when she got to the first ATM near customs it did not exist anymore, she continued but as she got closer to the location of the chase she got a really bad feeling and stopped to turn around.  She was alone down a long stretch and out of the bushes the same truck full of thugs barricaded the highway, jumping out and covering the roadway waving their arms like soccer player defending the net.  She drove straight off the road and into the dirt, hitting the gas, she simply smoked past them, ran straight through the border check point and all the way back without stopping.  I was so relieved, but we still had no cash and by now it was almost 5 pm. 

The Aduana officer was very nice and helpful, she got one of her staff to take Deya back again in his vehicle to help her get the money and watch her back.  Deya got good intel from this official and they were plain about what was going on.  Simply, they said make a run for the other border it’s not worth staying in Honduras right now.  They talked about the ‘helpers’ and how they simply use confusion to take advantage of people, they said that if those other guys that chased us were real helpers they would be in town not road blocking people where they are most vulnerable and alone.  When Deya related her story the Aduana had heard it before, she commented that she helped an American couple earlier that morning who were literally in tears when they arrived. The officials live in a hotel about 45 minutes from the border and offered to guide us there, if we get pulled over they would get us out of it and generally just make sure we were safe.  What they would do for us deserves a commendation.

We were entrenched, everybody in the area was used to seeing us there, they had all studied us and the bikes.  The fact was we were at the worst border in Central America, lingering as you should never do, pissed off ‘helpers’ everywhere, sketchy dudes on every bench and around every corner and the riding day was nearing dark.  It was past 5 pm and I wanted to get going while we still had light but Deya felt that we must follow the Aduana officials to the hotel when they finish work at 6 pm, I begrudgingly agreed. By 5:50 pm we saw a good looking young fellow on a 650 Honda walking his bike towards us from the bridge, both Deya and I thought the same thing, “Good thing he found us, he’s in trouble.”

The Englishman, Danny, was tailed by four of the thugs that had chased us early and road blocked Deya.  The brains of the operation was on his left, they followed him all the way up to us where Danny said something about getting through this mess.  Deya immediately said we would help him through it and the ‘helper’ whose English was near perfect said he was doing it and he is with him.  Deya spat, "He doesn’t need your help.” I was sure fire was going to burst from her eyes and fry the dude on the spot. The ‘helper’ started to argue and Danny told him clearly he wouldn’t need him and that he would work it out with us.  Deya took Danny off to get the process started.  Since they closed in a meagre ten minutes there is no way Danny would have been able to get cleared of that border.  The office unsigned and ‘helpers’ working hard to extract cash from his pocket simply would have been left to figure out his long night at the worst border in Central America.

Fifteen minutes later Deya had Danny through the process and we were good to go, but in the meantime the ‘helper’ was grilling me for information; spitting pure foam without control.  I could see his elevated tension level and he was pissed at having been shuffled aside by our team.  Where would we stay, how far would we go, what’s our destination, when would we leave, would we leave with Danny or alone?  He offered subtle threats guised as cautious advice and recommended where to go for our own safety, clearly convenient if we were to be followed.   After each round of questions he would return to his other ‘helpers’ and have a short conversation, the body language was clear and they shuffled around preparing things for a departure, looking at us but trying not to stare or be seen looking.  Of course ever question I answered with enthusiasm which he passed on to his cronies, they sounded reasonable but were total bullshit.  Clearly these guys were dangerous.

Just before we were to leave I went over to the ‘helper’ and complimented him on his excellent English.  I told him I had a group of riders coming through and hoped they could contact him in advance if he would be willing to get them through the process smoothly.  When I said 6 riders all retirement aged he was really grateful and gave me his name and contact.  I excused Deya for being hot tempered and blamed some other things so he could see there was no foul intent.  He thanked me and I told him I’d look him up next time we came through.  He seemed very pleased with this.  I returned to my bike hoping I had accomplished my goal of disarming him.  As soon as I got back to the bike he went over to his cronies, in two separate groups and talked briefly with them.  Each group left their vehicles and areas they were gathered and went back to the bar/restaurant nearby and started ordering beer and food.  I still wonder if what I saw happening was really happening or if I was being too cautious, I hope I never know.
It was a kind of frantic and crazy race to the hotel in the pitch black of night.  Danny admitted and I agreed that every time we passed a vehicle on the roadside or got overtaken at speed by some lunatic that it might be these guys coming to get a piece of us.  In the end, we got to the hotel safely.  I have to again thank the Aduana team for watching our backs; they are good people in an impossible situation.

The next day we would hit the Honduran exit, it’s not as brutal as the entrance but has no lack of silliness in the process, we got through only to be staggered by the stupidity of the Nicaraguan border.  In the end though we would buy the mandatory insurance and head out.  As we hit our final check point and started on our way we came across a public bus stop, there we got flagged down by a fellow in a police uniform. He checked our documents and was answering to a fat chick that hovered around telling him what to do.  She tried putting the pressure on by telling the police that the girl in the photo was darker than Deya and there was a problem.  Deya gave a story about us taking this back to the Customs office to formalize it and so they said we could go but not before asking about my helmet camera.  Deya gave them another story about satellite signals and the government watching and then they really didn’t want us around.
That whole day was hot, damn hot, reaching up to 44.5 Celsius. The riding was good but by the time we got anywhere all three of us had serious heat exhaustion.  Both Danny and I struggled; I think Deya probably had the most going on upstairs.  We had a great dinner right on the beach with beer and plenty of water but by now we were all simple overheated.  The sun was going down so no time for a swim, I retreated to the room and hit the bed.  What I wanted was to have a shower, to cool down and try to scrub the fever like pain in my head out but the best I could do was curl up on the bed in a ball shivering madly.  The last thing I remember is Danny saying in his English accent, “Do you want your Mommy?”  In my head I laughed but I no longer had the stuff to do it out loud and no witty comment was possible, cursed my failure to respond but enjoyed being the subject of jest in this most fragile state.  It was a cheap shot that I wasn’t sure was real but enjoyed it anyway.
44.5 degrees and near puking, hot and windy

The next day we crossed into Costa Rica, of course exiting Nicaragua was a mess…  so many different stops, so many pieces of paper, hunting down police and Customs officials wandering around the yard to get signatures for inspections that would never happen, it was total crap. To enter Costa Rica takes a while at the border because they are thorough.  It’s organized and straightforward, someone actually checks your bike and wants to see the person who owns the passport, imagine that.  I chatted briefly with a few folks at the border who were transiting by bus, a young Canadian couple returning from their trip to Nicaragua got robbed, I wasn’t clear where though, Nicaragua or Costa Rica.  I should pay more attention really..lol…
Awesome....
We spent the night at Liberia, again with Danny.  By now travelling with Danny seemed like old hat and truth be told both Deya and I really enjoyed his company.  The following day we would head East towards Lake Arenal and Danny would head South towards Manuel Antonio.  We pulled over for the goodbye and bode each other well wishes.  We’ll see Danny again I’m sure of it, I hope he had better weather than us, it’s been all rain so far.  We took the northern route around Lake Arenal, it’s magical and both Deya and I felt fortunate to have made it this far, for our time with Danny and for the great ride we were currently riding.  We got to our friends farm late and in the rain, the neighbours helping us find the place but we were safe and ready for rest.


1 comment:

  1. Anonymous19 May, 2011

    Crazy... Good thinking on your feet, both of you.

    Shawn

    ReplyDelete