The Central American 4, or CA-4 Treaty was signed by El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. It meant that the standard 90 day visa issued by any of these countries is valid in all 4 countries. I had never had a visa problem on any of my trips before as for New Zealand I had got my New Zealand ETA online and on my trip to Nepal I had Visa on arrival. As these countries are not in any treaty as such with their neighbours, it was quite easy to track my visa status. The problem I was facing this time was that I had overstayed my visa, I would not be allowed to enter El Salvador, and I was probably going to have to pay my way out of this problem.
My Central American visa had lapsed, but I still had 12 days left on my Guatemalan visa. And that was plenty of time to go to Mexico or Belize (which also have borders with Guatemala and are not part of the CA4) and return with a new 90 day visa. But I had friends waiting for me at the beach in El Salvador, and other friends I was meeting in Costa Rica, so backtracking all the way to Mexico seemed like the wrong choice.
I felt like a small bribe would probably do the trick, so without sounding too shady, I asked if there was a “fine” or a “tax” I could pay, perhaps with US dollars. But trying to bribe the El Salvadorian immigration agents was no use, so I headed back to Guatemalan side to see what I could do. At first, they were baffled by my problem. When I pointed out the Honduran stamp, they understood. I wouldn’t be allowed to enter El Salvador, but I could pay for an extension. They said it would cost about $120 and I’d have to pay it to an agent on the El Salvadorian side. I wanted to look into this further, and I figured there would be an internet café somewhere in the little town I’d passes through, so I had them stamp me back in to Guatemala, and I slung my pack over my shoulder and walked down the dusty dirt road to the little pueblo of San Cristobal.
There are San Cristobals all over Central America. I’ve been to a few. This was the worst. Not that it seemed dangerous or sketchy. In fact, for a border town, it was pretty sleepy – There was literally nothing there. A restaurant on on the main road, a couple small shops, and a sprawl of modest houses and shacks where the locals lived.
I stopped into the restaurant to ask for directions and I met a local girl, cute and friendly. I decided to flex my flirtatious Spanish skills and I flirted my way to convincing her to show me the way to nearest internet café. It was a modern establishment with a row of flatscreen monitors and webcams. The man behind the desk told me that all the computers were occupied, so I took a seat and waited. I was hot, frustrated, and just wanted to figure this mess out. After about 10 minutes of waiting a computer opened up and I jumped up to grab the seat. The worker stopped me and said he was actually about to close the shop, and I couldn’t use the computer.
In my most eloquent Spanish, I asked him why the fuck he didn’t tell me that sooner, and what the hell did he think I was sitting there waiting for. I told him he was a piece of mierda and I stormed off with my cute local girl following behind me. She pointed me in the direction of another place in town with internet but said she had to go back to work. She had been kind. I thanked her for her help, although she wasn’t really much help at all, and set off for the other café.
The place was a shack with a couple computers in the back. They had a bathroom that was just a toilet in the corner with a curtain hanging in front of it. The computers were old, and strung together by an orgy of powercorders, extensions, and multi-outlets. On the table was a row of big, boxy monitors covered in dust, and above it hung a sign that said in Spanish, “We sell soup” with a photo of a cup-a-noodles on it. Classy joint. But the internet worked, and I hopped online to get some advice from a friend and research this border issue. It turned out the price was right and paying the fee would give me 5 days to make it to the Costa Rican border. The fine I paid would be recognized at all other borders, so I wouldn’t have to pay again – this was important. I also checked flights from Guatemala City to Costa Rica, but they were significantly more expensive than the fine.
So: back to the border!
I trudged through the afternoon heat back up the hill and back to the border crossing to once again get stamped out of Guatemala. At that point, I’d been stamped out, in, and out again, in the span of about 2 hours. I changed my money to US Dollars, which is the official currency of El Salvador, believe it or not, and then I went to pay the $120 fine to a man in an office guarded by 2 men with shotguns. When I entered, they asked me if I had any guns in my backpack. I laughed and told them I’d left my armas in America. They laughed and waved me through the door. The man at the desk took my money and gave me a receipt which I to the El Salvador immigration official, and finally, I got stamped in to El Salvador!
This stamp however, was much different than any other stamp in my passport. The date was stamped in bright red ink, and in the corner, the official had penned the number 5 – meaning I had 5 days to get the hell out of Central America. It was like being handed a ticking time bomb. The only way to diffuse it would be to cross El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua and finally cross the border into Costa Rica. It was going to be one hell of a challenge. But first – To the beach! No rush, right?
I had friends staying in El Tunco, a surfer beach community on the coast of El Salvador, so I figured I’d head over there to catch up, maybe even catch some waves.
On the El Salvador side of the border, I spied a chicken bus, waiting, and ready to take me away from this hellish and dusty border. I hopped aboard and was soon on my way to Santa Ana.