A Tale of Two Passports

This past Tuesday I picked up my new passport from the US Embassy in Guatemala City, which is not a city I like to visit. Then I went straight to the Guatemalan Immigration Office to inquire about any requirements for leaving the country. I entered Guatemala on an emergency passport so the entry stamp is in there but the emergency passport was made invalid when I picked up my full passport. I luckily was helped by someone fluent in English and he advised me that as long as I have both passports then I’ll be OK. Too easy!

Holes are punched through the passports to invalidate them.

On Thursday we boarded a shuttle bus to El Tunco in El Salvador. The bus picked us up from our hostel in Antigua at 8am and we were on our way. The total journey was estimated at around 5 hours. At the border there was a massive queue of trucks which our driver expertly navigated around. He collected our passports and gave them to the immigration agent to stamp us out of the country. It should have been smooth and easy.

But this was no ordinary immigration agent. She was a complete idiot.

She refused to let me go through and said I had to go to Guatemala City to get my passport sorted out by the exact same people who told me I’d be ok. I asked her to call the office but she said she didn’t have a phone and didn’t know the number or who to talk to. WTF. I borrowed someone’s mobile phone but was put on an endless hold. Eventually our driver said he’d sort it out. It cost me US$20 to grease the dumb bitch to stamp me out. Unbelievable!

Next up was the El Salvador border. We had to get out of the bus and hand over our passports for inspection. Again, the border agent didn’t like my 2 passport situation. I explained to her in Spanish the situation. She consulted her colleagues and our driver helped to explain as well. But after what seemed like an eternity they wouldn’t let me pass. She was like the Gandalf to my fiery demon. My heart sank and my spirit was broken. Our driver was apologetic but there wasn’t anything more he could do. I got my stuff off the bus and said goodbye to everyone.

Now I had to figure out how to get back to Antigua via chicken bus. I started walking back to Guatemala but within a few metres I was stopped by a Salvadorean border agent for a routine passport check. He quickly caught on that I was denied entry and radioed it in. Then he brought me inside the office and a group of agents (including the one who denied me entry) came to speak to me. Thankfully one of them was fluent in English. He also seemed to be the guy in charge. He got everyone on the same page and said that I would be allowed into the country. After about 35 min I was given my passports and told that I wouldn’t have any issues crossing into Honduras and Nicaragua. They said that they put my info into the system and I saw that they made copies of my passports’ photo pages. He even apologized for not letting me into the country. What a guy!

NOTE: Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua form the CA-4 and have open borders for their citizens. For foreigners, it means that the 4 countries share the same entry stamp and you have a limit of 90 days in the CA-4 region. But you can’t get another entry stamp until you leave the region and re-enter.

The people in the town on the border could see the look of dejection and sadness on my face.

But now I had to get to civilisation. The border agent said that there was a chicken bus station nearby so I started walking. The people in the town on the border could see the look of dejection and sadness on my face. I felt like a fish out of water. I’m sure there aren’t too many solo Asian male backpackers crossing this border on foot. I asked around and finally found the chicken bus station. All the people I spoke to were really helpful. It turned out that there wasn’t any bus that went direct to San Salvador. I had to ride this one for 2.5 hours to a terminal somewhere then switch to another chicken bus to the capital.

The first few minutes proved to be the worst.

All sorts of thoughts were going through my mind. If anything happened to me here no one would know. Everyone on the bus thought that I was going back to Guatemala. If the bus went in a completely different direction or if there was no bus to San Salvador then I’d be in a bad spot.

Alas, after an hour I started to feel more comfortable. We stopped at tiny little towns along the Pan American Highway. People got on and off. Coconut water and candies for sale by vendors who came on the bus in each town. Sometimes I wish there was this kind of service on buses in the Western world.

2 and a half hours later, we arrived at a busy bus terminal. The place was heaving with people and buses. As we pulled in, my new Salvadorean buddy pointed me in the direction of the bus to San Salvador. I thanked him and dashed over to the next leg of the journey. This bus was much more deluxe. Cushioned seats, aircon, curtains for the windows, and even TV’s. It thankfully made very few stops and after 2 more hours, we pulled into a bus terminal in the capital.

The moment I stepped off the bus, taxi drivers were asking where I needed to go and negotiating with me. A taxi would’ve cost me around US$30 to get to El Tunco. Way too expensive. I opted for the chicken bus but the taxi drivers were saying that it didn’t leave from here and that I’d need to take a taxi to another bus terminal. This turned out to be partially true. The bus to La Libertad (route #102) didn’t leave from this bus terminal but it did drive past on the road in front of the bus terminal. I found this out after talking to the armed guards in the bus terminal.  They were even nice enough to walk me over to the road when I didn’t quite understand what they were saying.

The view from my seat, San Salvador to La Libertad.

Within a few minutes bus #102 showed up and I waved it down. It was almost empty when I got on but within a few minutes it was rammed from end to end. The drive to La Libertad took a while since it was close to the peak hour and the road winded its way down the hills to the Pacific Coast. The sun dipped below the hills as we approached the crashing waves of the Pacific.

I asked the bus conductor for info on how to get to El Tunco. It turns out I asked a few min too late cause we had just passed the transfer point for the next bus. I hopped off the bus in the busy city centre of La Libertad. Taxi drivers wanted to take me for US$4 to El Tunco. Too expensive. I tried offering US$2 but that was too low for them. The #80 bus soon arrived and I hopped on. It only took about 15 or 20 min to reach the main road into El Tunco for 25 cents. I hopped off the bus there and walked into town. After 6 hours and four different buses from the border I had finally made it!!!!

What was your worst border experience? Tell me all about it!

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