Border Crossings in Latin America - The Easy Way and the Hard Way by:Gary Sargent
The obese, sour faced Mexican official sweating gently in the tiny booth doesn't like the look of my passport. Bulging from within his damp uniform, he tells me that there is an irregularity with my visa stamp. Co-incidentally, there's also a problem with my travel companion's passport. Luckily, for a couple of hundred pesos per person, he can resolve the problem.
The border crossing between Belize and Mexico is not the nicest place to be. It's made even worse when the gatekeeper between Chetumal and Corozal tells you that you have two options; return to Mexico and get the proper paperwork, or pay his fee. Fuming, I slide the crumpled notes across the counter and the official mutters under his breath at the injustice of me asking for a receipt, which I never receive. I return back to our waiting taxi to find out that the driver has doubled our fare for the ten minutes spent arguing at the window.
Border crossings. Some go well in Latin America, some don't. You're in unfamiliar surroundings with the intention to move into another country, not considering going back, and everyone at the border knows it. Sad but true, the best advice is not to trust anybody. Latin Americans are wonderful people, just not at the borders of their countries.
Latin American border crossings vary massively depending on many factors, including the officials present, the time of day and the number of people crossing. Despite this, there are very clear ways to make your crossing go smoother, or reduce the possibility of problems.
The Easy Way
The simplest way by far is to make your transit by long distance bus routes between large towns or cities in different countries; you won't be hunting around for transport connections or trying to get out of the border post or community. Staying on the bus or moving through immigration in a big group, you'll be in and out in no time. Anyone wanting to take advantage is much less likely to pick on a big group of tourists; all your paperwork will be processed together as well, and officials will be less likely to take the time to single you out.
The (Possibly) Hard Way
Next up on the scale of difficulty is crossing solo or in a small group by public transport, or in your own vehicle. Some borders are surprisingly trouble free, for example the one between Colombia and Ecuador, but it's worth considering the following points:
- If you need to change currency, work out how much you need and do the calculations at the current exchange rate before you arrive. You will have a number in your head for reference to make sure you don't get ripped off by fast-talking changers with dodgy calculators.
- Pack your patience. Depending on the crowds you could be waiting as an individual traveller a lot longer than those arriving on a long-distance bus or with tour groups.
- Make 100% sure that your paperwork is in order. Do you have all the right documents for this particular border? Are you visas and stamps up to date, or have they expired? Don't give crooked officials the opportunity to find an 'irregularity'. You should check the requirements for your border in your guidebook or check a reputable travel forum.
- Bribes are an inevitable part of contact with administrators; for many of them its the only way to improve the miserable salaries that they are paid. Stay aware of any suspect diversions from procedure, and don't be afraid to challenge or call out corruption; you could try asking for a receipt (recibo) or even haggle the cost of the 'service charge' down. Cash is not the only solution either; countless travel forums suggest commodities to entice officials from gold watches to Playboy magazines...
- Keep photocopies of all your important documentation. You never know when they could be asked for, and it's much better to hand them over right away instead of see your papers disappearing into an office to be copied, never to return.
- If a good friend or a trustworthy travelling companion speaks Spanish, you'll find things a lot easier. However, if you don't speak the language, don't let lots of fast talking and hand-waving get you spooked. Take things slowly and use whatever means to communicate clearly and make sure that you understand, and are understood.
Remember, however good or bad border crossings may be, they'll only be a small part of your Latin American adventure. Good luck on your next journey!
About the author
Gary Sargent is the Managing Director of the tour companies Escaped to Peru and Escaped to Latin America and has lived in South America for over 10 years. Gary is passionate about life here, the people, customs and places. To learn more or to book your next adventure please visit http://www.escapedtoperu.com