Before we embarked on this trip, there were a number of stress-inducing topics that kept us on Google for long periods of time. High on the list was how to survive border crossings. As mentioned in a previous post, border crossing is a “unique” kind of experience when traveling with a vehicle. We are very thankful for travel blogs out there that prepared us so we didn’t have to fly into it blind.
We’d like pay it forward to other travelers who may happen upon this site, and share some of our experience on the controversial topic of using “helpers” (or in Spanish, tramitadores) who supposedly help guide one through the maze of border crossing for a fee. This is not a step-by-step guide at all but just our experience with helpers including the good and the ugly. We used helpers three times in the last seven border crossings from Mexico to Costa Rica.
For a step-by-step guide, we have found My Overland Adventure to have the most helpful information with even GPS coordinates! We also like to consult Neli’s Big Adventure and of course the old favorite Life Remotely.
Border: From Belize to Guatemala
There were no helpers on the Belize side but the friendly money exchanger pointed us where to go. On the Guatemala side once we approached the fumigation hut which was the first step, helpers started surrounding our vehicle. Most of them were kids. We told them no firmly a few times which got most of them to disperse except one kid. He looked about twelve and he really knew how to take rejection with a cheerful smile and small talk. We ended up using him because he was so likeable. We paid him two bucks up front – wrong move but we were new at this. But he turned out to be extremely professional, smart, and went out of his way to help us be comfortable and dry in the pouring rain. We paid him two bucks more at the end because we liked him that much. His name was Alejandro.
The border process was not complicated here and no helper was really necessary. All the windows and agents are within 50 feet of each other and it wasn’t busy at all when we crossed on a weekday morning. But our experience with Alejandro was very positive.
Border: From Guatemala to El Salvador (La Hachudura Border)
As we approached the border, we saw a huge line of big rigs backing up our side of the highway, just like we were warned about by so many travel blogs. The advice is to go onto oncoming traffic to bypass all these trucks. Right away, a moped with two guys started waving us forward. They took us onto oncoming traffic lane, down in the ditch, back up onto traffic, swerved in between trucks, even got an eighteen wheeler to back up for us…so inadvertently, we started using a helper even though we had planned not to. They took us what seemed like a mile to the front of the line of trucks. That alone was worth some money. Then, at both the El Salvador aduana where we cancelled the temporary import permit (TIP) AND the Honduras side where we needed a new TIP, the main guy, Jorge, got us to the front of the lines skipping over a dozen waiting truckers. That saved us an hour or possibly two! (Yes, corruption, sorry, but….) He was very professional throughout and never took our important paperwork in his hands. He rides on a moped with another guy and speaks great English. We paid him $20.
Our helper was super helpful and saved us loads of time. Worth every penny.
However, when all was over he proceeded to recommend a friend for the next border. Our guard was down at this point and we told him what day we planned to cross into Honduras. This would turn out to be a big mistake.
Border: From El Salvador to Honduras (El Amatillo Border)
The El Amatillo border is infamous for good reason. This border is messier, dirtier and required more assorted photocopies than any other. It is also a popular border for travelers who plan to drive through Honduras in one day.
So we told Jorge from the last border about our plans. Which was really stupid for so many reasons. Anyway, his friend named Ronnie found us at the last gas station before the border. He spoke great English and had another guy with him who spoke mostly Spanish. It was that other guy who really did all the work, if you can call it that.
Ronnie and his friend, who were around our age and professionally dressed, rubbed us the wrong way right off the bat. They started saying how it was a Saturday and therefore the bank was closed on the Honduras side where we had to pay the TIP fee but it’s okay because they could help us through it. Bullshit alert. From others’ blogs, we knew that the bank was closed only on Sunday and even then, you can pay the fee directly to the aduana. Then they started telling us how they were going to take our documents and go to the officials they knew, and we could just wait in the car the whole time. Red flag alert. You should never let your documents out of your hands. Finally, from the gas station, they had to flag down a tuk-tuk to go to the border with us. Seriously, no moped, no car?
We should have quit with them right there, but we were biased by the last two good experiences and also wanted to be nice. We did insist on not parting with our documents and I ended up following them everywhere. Which then, led me to conclude that they added no value whatsoever. They went to the same windows that everyone went to, stood in the same lines and the whole process took three hours. I also noticed that the border officials sure didn’t care for them one bit. No one chatted them them and one agent openly snickered when they said hello.
Through the three hours that I tagged alongside them, they started telling scary stories. About a new mosquito virus that Honduras started fumigating for – outside AND INSIDE the vehicle. About an inspection where they took everything out of your vehicle. And about a new police checkpoint that had a long line of trucks. So of course they said for an ADDITIONAL $60, they would get us pass all of that. We declined the “extra” help. But they had our newly issued TIP in their hands and we ended up paying them $30 for it! Which they complained was too little! (Not sure why we even paid that much. We were wary and unhappy throughout. Big mistake.) They tried to detain our TIP while demanding for more money. We argued. We were able to take the TIP back and left pissed. The scary stories of course turned out to be all lies.
Extremely negative experience with these scammers. They added zero value. Told lies. And had access to copies of our passports and vehicle title which was the biggest mistake on our part.
This border was kind of a cluster as everyone said. But in hindsight, totally doable with some notes and a lot of patience. The only thing really tricky here is all the photocopies, which you can do right there at the border at a little store, staffed by a kind and helpful guy. We saw four other border crossers (all Spanish speaking locals) who used helpers as well and the helpers I saw I’m sorry to say looked either really dirty or strung out on drugs. Nobody looked to be really helpful here.
Do not use helpers. Very bad experience!
Border: From Honduras to Nicaragua (El Espino Border)
The more popular border to cross is probably the Guasaule border which would take one closer to Leon, Nicaragua, but we used the El Espino border that took us to the mountains of Somoto. This was the second border we crossed the same day we entered Honduras from El Salvador.
We reached this border after a long six hour day including the nightmare at the previous border and what a refuge it was. We were very politely approached by several helpers who all smilingly accepted our refusals. There were no truckers around. Both sides of the border were super relaxed and all the agents were actually cheerful and helpful if you can believe that. It was a very therapeutic border experience for us. We even took a snack break and hung out on the benches outside the aduana to enjoy the cool mountain air.
Easy breezy border crossing. Enjoy this border!
So should you use a helper at border crossing?
There you have it – the good and the ugly. In general it seems the overlanding community has a very negative view on helpers and I understand why. But our experience is that it can be helpful to use one. We have decided not to use any more helpers but we also have had so many border crossing experience under our belt. If you decide to hire one, be aware at all times, agree on a price upfront, do not let them handle your documents, and if you notice ANY red flag, end the engagement right away. If you choose not to use helpers, just firmly refuse. Unlike what we have read, we have not come across aggressive helpers who touched our truck or would not leave us alone.