The Honduran/Nicaraguan border at Los Manos was the busiest and most frenetic I’d encountered. Before I could pull my GPS off my trusty Touratech mount I was surrounded by young boys. One wants to watch my bike, the others are shoving immigration forms into my hand. I do the best I can to explain that I too have two yes and two hands and have much experience crossing Latin American borders. Known as tramitadores (helpers) these boys earn their living by walking documents through the immigration and customs offices at the border and obtaining the obligatory copies of passports, titles, registration and drivers’ licenses. They are looking for tips and in some cases hope to catch a foreigner who’ll pay them their quoted price and in the end an inflated fee gets split between customs or immigration official and the tramitadore.
I quickly learn I’ve got to change money because the Nicaraguan immigration office won’t accept Honduran Limpira. The boys tell me it’s going to cost the equivalent of $24 and I’ll need this in Nicaraguan Cordobas. Unfortunately, I’ve managed my Limpira ration quite nicely and don’t have enough to get me through. One of the money changers who wander and follow border crossers through the maze of paperwork agrees to change my lone bill of Costa Rican Colones, Soon I’ve got enough to get me through the border — per the tramitadore’s cost estimate.
But I handle the document processing on my own. One of the boys hangs in the balance and another constantly points his piece sign oriented fingers to his eyes indicating he’s watch my bike. I mimic the sign right back to him. “I’m watching you boy. And my bike.” It’s a little game. There’s no agreement and I tell them stories of other border crossings.
I pay my $2 fee to exit Honduras. I pay another $7 for a Nicaraguan tourist Visa, and another $3 is paid for something I still don’t understand. By the time I get to customs I’m ready to pony the $10 (plus or minus) for a tempoary vehicle import permit. While most of the truckers and other drivers stood at the window while Mr. Customs Agent completed the necessary documents, he asked me into his office and sat me down next to him and his typewriter. As he banged out my vehicle form in triplicate using traditional carbon paper he asked me the usual questions. In fifteen minutes I had my own copy complete with rubber stamped indicias and his very fancy signature and I was on my way. No cost. For my helpers I tossed 100 cordobas their way, without a full understanding of hte exchange rate. The other boys who’d been hanging around surrounded me. All of them looking for some sort of tip. One boy about 9 years old held his dusty hand out. His dark blue shirt splattered with mud and the soles of his shoes were sown on with feeble twine. His younger companion held out his right foot for me to see. His ankle was swollen and the mud was caked around his dark eyes. My heart sank. I asked what’s wrong. His friend did the talking. “He has no shoes.” He spoke in Spanish, of course. What could I do. I wish I had a shoe store in my panniers and I could set him up. But no. And there were no shoe vendors in sight. I flipped my remaining loose change their way and moved on.
The road leaving the border and into the fertile valley east of Esteli Nicaragua was ideal: banked, curvy and smooth. Boys on horseback, men riding donkey carts and women carrying pcaks of sticks on their backs painted a primitive and rural scene welcome to these eyes. For the first time since entering Latin America I noticed buss stops that actually had paved pull offs and sheltered structures with benches. The memories of my mind drifting while whipping down roads of Mexico or Guatemala only to wake up to a bus stopped in the middle of the “highway”. In Nicaragua, this wasn’t going to happen. As I moved from rolling hills to the valley I notice rice fields and hundreds of workers laying out to dry the daily harvest. I passed through small villages and took a turn toward Matagalpa, eager to climb into the hills to the grand coffee plantation of Northern Nicaragua: Selva Negra.