Tips for driving from North to Central America: copies, money changers, helpers and bribes
And a bit of useful information for those who find themselves in our neck of the woods.
We have crossed 7 borders on our journey and can share some useful tips.
Copies. They love copies. Have many. It will save you time and money ($.05-.30 per copy). Per each border have 2 of each passenger's passports. The driver(s) will need 4 of licence and passport. Bring 4 for each vehicle you're importing. We had a car, trailer, bike and quad.
Money changers. Are on every border. Are either life savers or demons sent to rob you of your cash. It's good to get rid of the old country's money to trade to new country's money... Unless you plan to come back. You'll be losing on the exchange rate as it's the worst at the border. Wait until you can hit a bank, if you want the best rate. And you can always change USD, or even pay w/ USD at many, but not all, places. Money changers usually offer you a bad rate. But you can bargain it up, or down, just like anything. There are many of them. If you are offered 25, try asking for 30. You'll agree on 28 at the end. It's better that the 25 you were offered originally but not as good as the real rate of 32 that you could have gotten at the bank. Be smart. Don't trade all your USD$500 at the border! Even if they tell you that you must and USD isn't accepted at that border. $20 is enough to get a meal, then you'll figure it out. Using a credit card has worked well for us. Most hotels, bigger restaurants, gas stations and convenience stores accept it. You'll lose about 2% on bank fees bit it's still better than using ATM w/ the $5 Interact fee.
Helpers. Are everywhere too. And they are eager to help you w/ filling out forms at the borders. We don't know what they charge but you definitely don't need them and can do everything yourself. Don't be so quick to give your passports to some guy in a T-shirt who will run about for you. He wants money. Normal border workers won't do that for you. They sit in A/C offices.
Bribes. Sometimes are in explicit and sometimes not. Once we were stopped on the road in Mexico by the state cops. They said that we can't go through town w/ a trailer w/o a permit. Permit cost 600 pesos. That quickly became 500 (about $30). I said it was too much. After I realized there is no permit I said I only have $23 and I need $3 for beer. So I can only give him $20. He hesitated, stating it was too little, but took it anyway. In retrospect, if I had smaller change, a $10 would've sufficed. Have smaller change! On the other hand, I should have just played dumb, gotten into the car and drove straight. Nothing they can do as they were in the wrong. Bribes, as anything, can too be negotiated. If you wanna be smart or fight the system, like I do, ask for their full name, badge #, snap a pic of them. Preferably as you're giving them money. Tell them it's for Instagram. Tell them it is your first time giving a bribe and it's so cool, your friends will love it. I'm doing that next time! ;) See how quickly they let you go.
Let us know if these tips were useful and share your stories if you did the same/similar trip. You can also read about our road adventure here.