With 19 border crossings across 14 countries under our belt it’s safe to say they’ve been a staple for us in the last ten months. We never really thought too much about them when we were planning the trip, other than to double check visa requirements and potential costs. To be honest we were pretty blasé about it all. After all we’d travelled loads before. How different could it be? Turns out – very.
Now, for the most part, our initial feeling has always been excitement when crossing into another country. Perhaps sadness when we were leaving a couple of them (Argentina, Colombia and Honduras spring to mind). And definitely relief for some (Bolivia is definitely the front runner here). But mainly excitement. After all, we’d be getting to go and experience somewhere new; new landscapes, new architecture, new people, new culture. Moreover (Jeroen might argue more importantly) we’d be getting new stamps in our passports. Our badges of honor – ‘Carl & Jeroen woz ere’.
Stamps stamps stamps!
Anyway, the excitement, often turned to other emotions along the way; driving us insane with confusion, frustration and a bit of stress.
Here’s a lowdown of some of our most challenging experiences of the 6 airport crossings, 3 seaport crossings, and 10 land crossings we’ve encountered on the trip so far.
‘Proof of onward travel please’…
Everything we researched beforehand suggested that the immigration officials in most countries rarely ask for this. It proved true for the first 7 months of the trip; in South America, where we were never asked to provide anything. To be honest most of the officials barely spoke enough to request it.
Cue Central America; where we decided to (or in some cases had to, as with Ecuador – Colombia where there were riots going on on at the border) take some flights between countries. More specifically, cue the few airlines; who declined our check in until we could prove onward travel. Finally, cue us; rushing around to try and get internet connection in the airport to find the cheapest means of transport and ticket that we could book online (which we ultimately didn’t end up using), whilst having a little domestic argument in the middle of departures (as we tend to do in pressure situations).
Thankfully we got our flights in the end. The irony of it is though – just like in South America, the Central American immigration officers never even bothered themselves for the information in the end!
‘No hablamos Español’…
Or at least we don’t speak whatever Spanish you’re giving your instructions in! This seemed to happen most often when we were taking a land crossing by bus, where we were pretty much only surrounded by either other non-Spanish speaking travelers, or other Spanish-speaking (not a word of English speaking) locals (to be honest at many points we were even wondering if the locals had fully understood what was said).
In the end, after spending a few minutes having a small domestic arguing with each other over the fact that neither of us understood Spanish well enough to know what had been said (it’s the pressure!), we’d just follow the crowd and hoped for the best.
For the most part this worked out OK for us, except with the Argentina – Bolivia land crossing, which was the only land crossing that we did ourselves (without a bus company). On this occasion we misunderstood what we were told by the lady at Argentinian immigration and ended up standing in the locals’ immigration queue on the Bolivian side, not realizing that aforementioned Argentinian immigration lady had already given us our Bolivian tourist pass so we could just headed straight on through. We’d wondered why locals kept pushing in front of us. We just thought they were being rude (obviously we didn’t say anything as we couldn’t muster up the Spanish to argue with them).
One hour later, after standing in the baking heat with our backpacks, we finally reached the front and had a small domestic when we were told we didn’t need to wait and could pass straight through.
‘You shall not pass (without paying what we want)’…
On quite a few occasions we were asked to pay fees that we weren’t sure we should be paying. Or at the very least we’re fairly certain we were being overcharged. It was never an issue in South America as most of the land crossings didn’t carry fees. And as for airports – their fees were always included in flight tickets so we didn’t notice them. But once we hit Central America that all changed.
We tried our best in our Spanglish to challenge the fees. But it never worked. The amounts weren’t huge – a few dollars here and there, but (and many of you might be able to hear Carl now) it was the principle of the matter. In the end we came to the conclusion that if we wanted to enter the country we pretty much just have to pay and do whatever was asked of us; no arguing, no questions asked. It’s either that or be stranded in a border town in the middle of nowhere.
Border crossing madness
‘Cambio, comidas, bebidas, souvenirs, SIM chips, electrónicas. Cambio, comidas, SIM chips, souvenirs, electronicas. Cambio, comidas’…
One of the main reasons you wouldn’t want to be stuck in said border town is that you’ll either go insane from being approached by the hoards of salesmen and women with the same bellowing voices; enticing you to buy everything from currency, to food and drinks, SIM cards, electronics – you name it. Or you’ll be broke because you’ll buy whatever they are selling just to get them to give you a break. And there’s every chance you will be sad after buying at the border, as much of what is on offer all looks a bit dodgy, and there is no money-back guarantee on offer in these places.
The *if we have to stay here all day then so do you* approach…
It can’t be said that South & Central America are the most efficient places in the world, that’s for sure.
From queuing for hours at the Honduras border in stifling 35 degree heat, to the long waits at the Argentina crossing in the Andes with freezing temperatures (and only wearing shorts and a T-shirt). From the pointless customs checks in Nicaragua, Peru and Ecuador (with them either not bothering to check the bags or ‘checking them’ and then allowing us to pass back through to the main square again to place our bags back on the bus without any tracking), to the ridiculous queuing systems in almost every country with no process for allocating the queues.
The ice-cold chili Argentina border crossing
It always seemed to be that they were worst when we’d been traveling for 10+ hours. We definitely had to grit our teeth and bear it on a number of occasions, with Jeroen having to hold Carl back from giving them some advice on their processes (old habits die hard)!
Green = go. Red = busted!
The only one who seemed to make some fun of it was Mexico, with their traffic light system for determining who gets their entire bags checked. At least this made it feel like a bit of a game.
‘Declare everything now, or forever hold your peace. Oh, and face huge fines’…
We knew this would be something we needed to be careful with. Not that different from crossing into most countries across the world. Although the customs forms seemed quite archaic for most countries (you are allowed one calculator, one transistor radio, one fax machine (WTF?!), etc.) For the most part we were careful. Although this didn’t prevent us from having a few encounters with customs.
The most common one was trying to explain to customs officials on numerous occasions that the extra lenses for the camera are not cameras themselves (you’re also only allowed one camera).
The second most common was being asked if we have $10,000 in cash. Uhmmm we wish!
The funniest encounter though, has to’ve been the crossing from Argentina. we weren’t sure whether we had to declare a bag of chili flakes at the Chile border (yes, we realize the irony). After debating it (although some might class this as having been a small domestic argument too), we opted for not marking them on the form thinking it was unlikely that they’d be found. Until we arrived and realized that they take every bag out of the bus to be searched by sniffer dogs. There was a moment where we were asking the customs officer for the form back in a panic; trying to explain we needed to declare the chili flakes. He had no idea what we were talking about, kept the form and left us to stand for 30 minutes; waiting to see if the dog was going to find them and have a few hundred dollars fine slapped on us. There was a girl standing with us who also seemed a bit on edge. We didn’t really understand why. Then it all became clear. In the end they didn’t find our chili flakes. They did however find the herbs and spices in her bag and hauled her into the customs office, from which she emerged 20 minutes later looking very sad and sheepish.
That was the last time we took anything remotely related to food or drink across a border.
‘Thanks you can pass through’ *hands passport back without stamp*
Given our desire to collect as many stamps as possible and fill up our passports, this one speaks for itself. Not getting our badge of honor at some crossing was just the cherry on the cake after having to endure one or more of the above things!
Thankfully we’ve been able to make up for it with extra stamps from Machu Picchu, Ushuaia, Galápagos Islands, the Equator in Ecuador, and Utila.
Some extra stamps please!
So, quite the experience we’ve had. Par for the course with backpacking we guess. Especially in an area renowned for illegal immigration and smuggling.
Plus, looking back, although it might not have seemed it at the time, it has added to the fun.
For future reference, though:
- Always have proof of onward travel when flying. To be fair, you should probably have it just in case anyway, but definitely when flying.
- Make more effort learning the language. Or always try and find an English-speaking person to go through with (unless they look dodgy like that girl in Chile, in which case stay away – you’ll have enough fun getting through as it is without being deemed guilty by association).
- Pay whatever you’re asked and let your principles go.
- Don’t bring any foods across borders. Nothing. Not even if you are sure it never originated from an animal, plant (although not sure what that leaves you with to eat). It’s just not worth the worry that you’re gonna be slapped with a fine.
- Accept the inefficiencies. Embrace them (not to get away with smuggling anything dodgy mind you).
- Bring a fan. Or long pants and a sweater depending on the weather. You could be in for quite a wait.
- Do not have domestic arguments at the border. You’re only going to draw more attention you yourself and raise suspicion from the officials.
- Finally, smile at the officials. They do have to stay there the whole day so are probably having a much worst time that you. Besides, they are the difference between you getting in and being stuck around the echoes of ‘Cambio, comidas, bebidas, souvenirs, SIM chips, electrónicas. Cambio, comidas, SIM chips, souvenirs, electronicas…’.
Until next time…