Thursday, May 5, 2011

Nicaragua – just around the corner… another border

The most comfortable bus ride yet
(in Central America)
We survived our last night in Tegucigalpa - Honduras without any security incidents. Probably we were a bit too concerned but we really wanted rather to be more safe than sorry.
We departed Tegucigalpa and Honduras in a very comfortable long distance bus operated by a company called Tica Bus. The ride took us directly from the capital of Honduras to the capital of Nicaragua – or from one dangerous city to the next… but more on that a bit later.

After about 3 hours of a super comfortable air conditioned bus ride, we arrived at the Nicaraguan border town of Guasaule (near Somotillo in Nicaragua), the crossing was a breeze. Tica Bus offers a full service border crossing this means that as a passenger all you have to do is get off the bus at the border while the Tica bus "facilitator" takes care of all the formalities.
This is how it works: As soon as the bus starts rolling a bilingual Tica employee collects all the passports from the passengers along with $15 for the fees. This is actually $3 over what we could account for according to the official border crossing fees and friends who have crossed on foot… who knows where the difference goes, probably it is split among the border officials and the Tica guys as service fee ;-)

We for once didn’t mind paying an extra $3 each. We heard and read horror stories about the border crossing between Honduras and Nicaragua. It can be very lengthy, expensive,
One of the many
"border crossing guides"
and hot… we soon learned that even waiting outside the bus, can be hot, like a frying pan! The two checkpoints are almost 1km (0.6 miles) apart. The checkpoint at the other popular border crossing of Las Manos would actually be even farther apart.

A traveler using local transportation would have to clear one checkpoint and then walk the 1 km across the bridge to the other checkpoint. Alternatively, one could hire a local “border crossing guide” which is basically someone that transports you on a bicycle rickshaw from one checkpoint to the other for a tip …which typically ends up being $5-10. For that amount he also helps you to clear the immigration formalities. So our extra $3 for the Tica bus facilitator seems to be quite a good deal.

Goodbye Honduras...                           
                           welcome to Nicaragua
                           and Japan???
We arrived at the Honduras exit checkpoint and all had to get off the bus and just wait… 15 minutes later, the Tica assistant returns with our passports… Everyone boards the bus and off we go across the bridge – Bye Bye Honduras. At the Nicaragua checkpoint, we get off the bus again and clear customs while our Tica assistant clears immigration for all of us. The customs clearance was at a special area reserved only for us. There was no line and no other people. Clearing customs was much easier than expected, we had to open up our bags and show the contents. Although we did have a short moment of anxiety when the customs officer asked us to write the value of our Netbook onto the clearance form. Normally that means having to pay some bogus tax, but that was all, nobody asked us for extra money.

About 30 minutes later after everyone finished the custom's inspection, the Tica facilitator returned with an immigration officer who called our names and handed us the passport as we boarded the bus. Now we definitely think that the $3 service fee is money well spent… boom bang, we are now on Nicaraguan soil.

We arrived in Managua (the Capital of Nicaragua) shortly before sunset. We don’t like to arrive in a city in the dark having to search a place to stay, so we picked the nearest guesthouse that was recommended in our guidebook just as the sun set. Most of the backpacker places were here anyway. But we had one last mission before we could rest: Get local money from an ATM. The family at the Posada de Ruth guesthouse was very friendly and also very concerned for our safety.

VIP treatment: immigration officer
handing back our Passports
Although that Nicaragua is apparently the safest country in Central America and Managua the safest capital (excluding San Jose in Costa Rica) We discovered later that this area we were in, had worsened recently. The area around the Tica Bus terminal is considered unsafe for Gringos (great to know that one of the biggest bus companies has their terminal in the worst part of town… but actually it is the terminal that has attracted the crooks). The family that runs the guesthouse strongly discouraged us from taking anything except our clothes for the short walk to the ATM. They specifically told us to leave our watches and passports at the guesthouse… of course we were suspicious now: Are they just trying to make it easy for themselves to break into the room and collect our valuables while we were out. But they seemed genuinely concerned about our safety (more than we were, actually) and they live there too. It's their home actually. So we decided to follow their advice and walked the 1 km to the ATM pretty much naked… that's how a traveler feels without money belts tucked into the pants, passport hidden in the socks and cash stuffed into unusual places.

We returned just after dark with sufficient amount of local currency to pay for the room and our transport out of Managua the next day, and also have some dinner. It didn't seem that dangerous though, but were happy not to become part of a statistic that is maintained by the Managua Police department.

Later that night we read on the internet that the area around the Tica bus terminal has indeed been the scene of many tourist robberies, at day and night… good to know once you are sitting in the safety of our hotel room.