gap year in Latin America is most travellers’ dream. Many embark on a trip entailing long haul flights and several border crossings, and being aware of the border crossing requirements and the possible scams can help backpackers save a lot of time – not to mention a few bucks. Here are a few questions, answered for you on the basis of my very own personal experience, a lot of research and advice from expert travel agents and backpackers.

Should I get a one way plane ticket when flying from my home country?

You may, but this may carry the risk of not being allowed to board the plane. Most Latin American countries permit to enter on a tourist visa are for 90 days or so. You should therefore be able to offer proof that you are leaving within that period. This means that, when landing, you should already have a return or onward ticket of sort. In order to avoid problems and having to carry you back at their own expenses, most airlines will demand that you have a return ticket, and should you fail to produce one they may deny you the right to board the plane. It may happen, it has happened. The way around this is buying a ticket that allows you for date-changes and re-routing (you may have to pay a fee, but this is better than wasting an entire ticket and being unable to travel).

Do I have to pay a fee when crossing borders?

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. Some officials may ask for bribes. It never happened to me though!

Chicken buses Guatemala

Chicken buses take directly to the border – photo courtesy of J. Stephen Conn (Flickr)

Will I be asked for proof that I am leaving the country even when border crossing via land?

The short answer is “yes.” You will most likely be asked. I was not when I crossed the border between Guatemala and Honduras, but I was in Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. Should you fail to produce proof when asked, you will have to buy a ticket there and then (an international bus ticket, and occasionally even a flight) and chances are that either you use that bus ticket or you lose the money. A bit of advanced planning on the itinerary may be of help here, or try to get refundable tickets – do some search on the web, because when in a rush at a border you won’t have the time to do so. Be aware that when crossing the border between Costa Rica and Panama you will be asked to show proof that you have a plane ticket to your home country. I had to show proof I would be flying back to Italy within the allowed 90 days in Panama.

How does border crossing work? 

In Central America, it really is easy: you first go to the authorities of the country you are leaving and they will stamp your passport with an exit stamp, and if required ask you to pay a small fee. Then you walk the very short distance to the other country border authorities and show your passport and the other required documents (ie proof of onward travel). In South America, it may be slightly more complicated as you may have to walk up to 5 km between the two border authorities – there usually are buses, cabs or bici-taxis that carry travellers for a small fee (ask the price in advance and try to negotiate if you can). Be aware of the border crossing times: remember that some borders are not open 24 hours.

Nicaragua sunsets

Beautiful sunsets await when crossing the border to Nicaragua

Are there things I cannot carry?

Aside from the obvious (drugs and weapons), some countries (ie Chile) have 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. You will then be searched, and should you be caught with any items that are not permitted (or for which you should pay a fee), you will have to pay a penalty and will have to go through the process of weighting the goods, numbering them, etc. You will be sent a bill to your home address (the one on your passport) and should you fail to pay it when you receive it, you may be denied further entries in the country. In doubts, drop whatever you think may cause you problems.

Are scams frequent?

I have never experienced any, but I was always prepared, having all my documents in good order, change to pay any exit fee and transportation, etc. However, I have heard of travellers who, unwilling to wait for the bus between two borders, accepted rides from dodgy taxis and were then robbed of all their belongings. I have also heard of backpackers having to pay a bribe to border authorities that were unwilling to let them cross the border for whatever reason (ie the border was about to close, and they even negotiated the bribe). Keep your eyes open, know the rules, be ready to wait.

Guatemala markets

Beautiful markets in Guatemala

How do I cross the border between Panama and Colombia?

There is no land crossing between Panama and Colombia – the Darien region between the two countries is 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 (VivaColombia flies from Panama City to Medellin and Bogota for as little as 30 USD), take the ferry from Colon to Cartagena (Ferry Xpress connects the two countries twice a week, and the prices are very reasonable) or sail via San Blas. 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. Keep this in mind should you think you may get seasick. Plane ticket prices are normally around 150 to 200 US dollars. Cruises are between 500 and 600 US dollars and include meals, transportation, but not drinks.

Here’s a bit more about exit fees and visas. It’s also good to be informed of the Central America 4-border control agreement.

Know the rules, avoid the problems!