Latin America border crossing is easier said than done.
I have traveled across the region – both in Central and South America – multiple times, crossed many borders, and each time it’s been quite the ordeal – in fact, it never really goes the same way across the various borders.
If you are spending your gap year in Latin America and plan to visit multiple countries, you need to be aware of the border crossing requirements and the possible border scams. This can help you save a lot of time – not to mention a few bucks.
As I have quite a bit of experience, I thought I’d share a few tips to help make your Latin America border crossing a bit smoother. Here is what you need to know.
What You Must Know About Latin America Border Crossing
First of all, you need round trip tickets
Before even telling you what you need to know about Latin America border crossing, let me clear up one thing: you do need round-trip flights to even be allowed to board your flight to a Central or South America country.
I know this is a particularly tricky one if you are planning to travel long term, but trust me – it’s important.
You see, most countries on the continent will allow you to enter on a tourist visa for 90 days at most. After that, you are asked to leave. You need to show proof that you have the means to leave the country. If not, you may not even be allowed to board the plane – yes, airlines ask you upon checking in! This is a policy most airlines have in place to save themselves the hassle of having to fly you back (and at their own expense) in case you are not allowed to enter the country because you lack proof of a return ticket.
The fact that some travelers have managed to get away with this requirement should mean nothing to you. If there is a rule, you should play by it or take any associated risks of not doing so.
The way to go about it is getting a flexible ticket that allows you to change your return date; or to get a ticket that can be fully refundable so you can cancel it as soon as you land.
You need to show proof of onward travel
One of the most important things to know about Latin America border crossing is that you need to show proof of onward travel. This point is quite similar to the one above, but actually applies to land crossing.
Once again, you may or may not be asked for this – but if there is a rule, you have to play by it. For example, I was not asked to show proof of onward travel when I crossed from Guatemala to Honduras or from El Salvador to Nicaragua, but I surely was asked when I crossed from Nicaragua to Costa Rica – in which case, a bus ticket was just fine – and from Costa Rica to Panama – where I was asked to show I had a ticket to fly back to my home country.
Again, make sure to do your research before you plan to cross the border. In some countries, a cheap bus ticket that you can get online will be sufficient proof. In others (ie Panama) you will have to show that you have plane tickets, so get yourself a refundable one.
You will get one visa for 4 countries
One important thing to know about Latin America border crossing is that you will get one visa for 4 countries. According the Central America 4-border control agreement you are entitled to stay a total of 90 days spread across Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. If you want to stay longer, you will need a visa run in either Mexico, Belize or Costa Rica.
Borders may be quite apart from each other
Latin America border crossing varies widely between Central and South America.
Crossing the border in Central America is easier in a way, as borders are usually next to each other and close to a small town – so you just go to the customs authority of one country on one side, have your passport stamped out and then move to the other customs to get your passport stamped in.
GOOD TO KNOW: The trickiest border in Central America is that between La Union in El Salvador and Potosì in Nicaragua. The crossing happens by boat through the Gulf of Fonseca and very much depends on the sea conditions, and Potosì is truly isolated and hardly served by public transportation, so once you get there you are quite stuck. You may want to check the sea conditions before getting there, but keep in mind they are subject to sudden changes.
Crossing the border in South America may be more complicated as borders are often far apart from each other, so once you get your passport stamped out of one country, you may have to figure out how to get to the other border which may be up to 5 km away. There usually are taxis, bici-taxis, shuttles etc that will carry you for a small fee.
GOOD TO KNOW: You will need to have your documents in order in all cases!
Borders are not open 24 / 7
This is a key thing to keep in mind! Make sure to double check the opening and closing times of borders and most of them aren’t always open. The last thing you need is getting to a place to find out that the border is shut and you have no way to get back to town and nowhere to sleep.
You should plan to cross as early in the day as possible
Latin America border crossing is best done early in the day, for a variety of reasons. You want to make sure that you are able to catch the last bus once you get into the country; borders are honestly dodgy places where you won’t want to be stuck at night; the last thing you want is getting into a new town in the middle of the night, when everything is dark and finding accommodation a challenge.
You can cross via public transportation
Public transportation in Latin America may have its issues, with old rickety buses that take a lifetime to get you from one place to the other, but if there is one thing that is true is that they go everywhere. Unless you are pressed for time, you really don’t need to rely on private shuttles in order to cross the border. If you are looking for something a bit more comfortable, consider hopping on a luxury public bus (TransNica or Ticabus are the most famous in Central America, and Cruz del Sur one of the best in South America).
Currency exchange is more convenient than you may think
With the exception of El Salvador, Panama and Ecuador where the official currency is the US Dollar, each country in Central and South America has its own currency.
The good news when it comes to Latin America border crossing is that you can usually change money at the border, so that you can pay for small expenses (a snack, a drink, a quick cab ride) if needed. There will be men standing around with stacks of notes who will come forward asking you if you need to exchange. And for some reason, the exchange rate is always great – pretty much the same one you will see on XE.com – and you won’t even have to pay any extra fees.
The one thing you need to be aware of is – obviously – the official exchange rate (make sure to check that online before crossing). Also watch out for tricks: these currency exchangers have a way of talking very fast, sometimes in a way that may confuse you; and they will use their calculator so so quickly that you will lose track.
TIP: Ask various exchangers before agreeing to the exchange and do your calculations before surrendering the money!
You can use both currencies in border towns
I have just finished telling you that you can exchange currency at the border, but what if you don’t find anybody to do that for you?
Don’t worry! Shops, cabs and buses right across the border usually accept both currencies.
There may be border fees
Most countries won’t ask you to pay any fee when you leave their territory, but some do (ie Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras). Border crossing fees are usually just a few bucks and you can pay in local currency or in US dollars. Have some spare change ready. Be prepared for scams though (more about that later). Some officials may ask for bribes. It never happened to me though!
You need to keep the receipt of payment
Once you pay the exit or entry fee, always keep the receipt as you may be asked to show that at checkpoints and once you leave the country – and if you fail to show it, you may incur in a fine.
There are items you can’t carry
There is another very important thing you need to know about Latin America border crossing: there are items you can’t carry with you.
You obviously can’t carry weapons or drugs. You won’t believe how many backpackers find it amusing that they can smuggle small pieces of pot from one country to the other – it’s a huge risk! The last thing you want is getting arrested and charged with a felony in a country that is not your own, and where the prison conditions may well be dire.
What you can’t carry in and out of other countries though may be trickier! For example, Chile has very strict rules on carrying fruits and vegetables from other countries. You will be asked on your immigration form to declare whether you are carrying any, then you will be searched and if you are caught with any that you haven’t declared you will have to pay a fine – which is a massive nuisance not so much for the waste of money but for the fact that it’s a really time consuming process!
Scams can happen
Scams can happen during Latin America border crossing. I have never experienced it – and it definitely helped that I have always had my documents in order. But tales of border scams are common.
Here are a few examples:
Official looking customs officers (they even have badges!) may ask you to pay an exit fee in exchange for a sticker on your passport. It’s a small fee and you may be better off paying it than arguing your way out of it anyways, as things may get nasty.
Border control officers may ask you for a bribe to cross the border – this is especially common when you try to cross later in the day, as they may insist that the border is closed.
Taxi scams at South America borders are common, with taxis giving rides from one side of the border to the other but stripping travelers of their belongings on the way.
Just keep your eyes open!
There’s no land crossing between Panama and Colombia
There is no land crossing between Panama and Colombia – the Darien region between the two countries is a deep jungle with no roads and it is plagued by dengue and paramilitary groups or drug traffickers. Unless ready to risk your life, you have to either catch a flight or sail via San Blas. The ferry between Panama and Colombia is not reliable – they keep announcing rides will be sold, and never quite do.
If you are keen on seeing San Blas, opt for the sailing cruise but be aware of the risk of getting seriously seasick. The cruises normally last 5 days, and take you from Portobelo (2 hours drive from Panama City) to either Capurgana (immediately on the other side of the border) or Cartagena. Should you land in Capurgana, you will have to catch a speed boat to Turbo as there are no land connections.
Should your boat go all the way to Cartagena, be aware that the distance from the last stop in Panama and Cartagena is of 36 hours – which will be spent in the high waters on one of the roughest seas in the world.
Flights normally costs around $150 to $200 US dollars. Cruises are between $500 and $600 US dollars and include meals and transportation, but not drinks.