Thank goodness I started this trip with a clean passport as it is now getting filled up pretty quickly. In Asia, the authorities seemed rather keen on sticking full page rather grand visas in our passports and also giving us a whole host of associated stamps officially marking our point and date of entry and exit (and in India, we even got stamped in and out of individual states like Sikkim just to add to the bureaucracy). That is, apart from in Seoul where they chose not to stamp the passport at all, but instead gave us a separate loose leaf dated receipt when we arrived in South Korea so there’s no official record in our passport of that particular side-trip.
Here, in Central America, although there are no visas to buy, the pages of our passports are soon filling up. That’s not that surprising really as we are country hopping a bit, for example, on one trip from Roatan in Honduras to Santa Ana in El Salvador, we had to cross 2 borders (Honduras-Guatemala and Guatemala-El Salvador) in one day as the quickest route was to drive through Guatemala for an hour or so to get to our final destination in El Salvador.
As always, we’ve come across a few oddities (in addition to South Korea). When we entered Honduras, while they did stamp our passports, it only showed the date by which we had to exit the country (rather than the date of entry: instead this was stamped rather randomly on a separate piece of paper which apparently was a receipt for the entry fee).
But more curiously, on entry to El Salvador, no one stamped anything at all – an immigration official simply opened the door of our minibus and counted the number of passengers (which, let’s face it, wasn’t difficult as we were the only 2!) and then took a cursory look at our passports by the light of the minibus’s headlights (as we were crossing after dark at about 7.45pm). And that was it – no official record, no date of entry and no date by which we had to be out of the country either. I actually found this lack of an official stamp rather disconcerting although I had read that 4 of the Central American countries (Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador) have some sort of combined 90 day visa for the region: that’s fine in principle but the other countries had each happily stamped us in and out and in particular, Guatemala (the immediate country before) had also firmly stamped us out which, in my understanding, normally invalidated the permission to stay.
When we came to exit El Salvador a week later, again we received no stamp – this time an official climbed on our (full) coach and looked at everyone’s passports and then had to ask everyone individually the date on which they had entered El Salvador. It struck me that if he really wanted or needed this information, it would have made his life a lot easier if one of his colleagues had stamped us in on arrival. Still, having asked the question, he simply nodded and, seemingly satisfied, he handed us back our passports leaving us with a gap in our passport record for this short time which is just quite odd.
That’s not to say that the El Salvadorean officials didn’t take the border crossing seriously – the opposite in fact – we were held at the border for quite a long time while they completed a whole series of checks. As well as the immigration official who boarded our coach, we also had a health inspection although I would say that this was pretty light-touch and fairly random as essentially this comprised a lady boarding our bus and gently asking us if we were all well and/or if anyone had a fever. Given she didn’t use the coach’s microphone system, I’m not even sure that anyone sat in seats further back than the front 4 or so rows would have been able to hear anything she said anyway. She certainly had no one volunteering that they felt under the weather.
Then the anti-narcotics police boarded the coach and randomly selected 4 or so passengers who then had to get off the bus and have their luggage inspected etc. Fortunately we were not involved in this process and just had to sit it out patiently (am pleased to report that there didn’t seem to be any issues and the passengers all re-boarded the bus a short while later and then we were free to move on).
Having finally left El Salvador, we crossed back into Guatemala 50 metres down the road where the stamp-happy staff randomly gave Peter permission to stay for 40 days and me 85 days without any rhyme or reason (the maximum amount which is normally given to tourists (and had previously been given to us) is a 90 day stay and it wasn’t clear why we got less or indeed such random lengths but it didn’t matter too much as these were sufficient for our purposes). “Curiouser and curiouser”.