When moving around in Central America I’ve crossed a couple borders. While the basic story has always been pretty similar (sign out of the old country – sign in in the new country), details vary quite a bit. At some point the governments decided that this is a service that they should charge for. So there are fees for entering countries and fees for leaving countries. How much you have to pay in which way at which occasion varies greatly. Interestingly Costa Rica, while being one of the most expensive countries, was cheapest for me so far ($8 for leaving, entering is free). It’s followed by Guatemala. Guatemala would have been cheapest if I had left it on the land way (no official fee, but the migration officers will still charge you about $2 per direction), but they take an extra fee, that actually seems to be official, for leaving the country by boat. Cuba gets the prize for being the most expensive country with $30 for getting the tourist card for entering and a $25 departure fee. The Nicaraguan border officers get some extra credit for only accepting USD, and not Cordobas, the Nicaraguan official currency.
Besides costing money, these crossings of course also consume different amounts of time. Mexico to Guatemala took about 15 minutes in total for visiting both offices. Costa Rica had a substantial leaving queue and the whole crossing required visiting four different places. First I had to pay at some private agency in Costa Rica, that charges $1 for collecting the $7 official fee. Then I queued for some 30 minutes or so for getting the leaving stamp. After walking about 1 km through no-mans-land, I arrived at the Nicaraguan health check. Managing to present my passport seemed to be enough to earn me a little green piece of stamped cardboard that proved that I was no danger to public health in Nicaragua. With this piece I moved on to the migration office, paying $1 fee for entering the region on the way. After paying $12 to the migrations officer I had a stamped passport and could enter Nicaragua. The whole story took about 90 minutes, if my estimates are correct.
While Cuba charges the highest prize for entering and leaving, I also got a lot of attention from their customs officials. While I was queuing for the immigration counter, a guy with some badge came over to me and asked for my passport. The uniformed officials seemed OK with this behavior and after he had taken a look at my passport and – on request – told me that he worked for the migration authorities (I don’t even remember the acronym – nothing obvious). After a question answer game concerning my work, travel, luggage and I don’t even remember what else, he had about half a sheet of paper filled with notes. With this, we skipped the queue and I was granted entrance into Cuba. Once I had gotten my luggage off the belt, I was accompanied to the x-ray machine where the lucky winners of today’s special treatment got everything x-rayed. After skipping the customs queue I was
in the country and – since I had not organized my stay for the night – I was accompanied to the information desk, where the lady on duty happily directed me towards a casa particular (the Cuban official version of B&B), that would most likely pay her (and thus probably my customs companion) a nice commission. I kind of escaped that service by first going to the ATM and then working my way to the Cubana counter to figure out my luggage limit for the return flight. The website and my ticket only specified a limit of 1 piece – no weight specified. The ladies at the counter started with a guesstimate of 30 kg and after three seconds lowered it to 23 kg. I now know from experience that 21.3 kg is OK. When I was leaving the country, I was moved to a little office, where I was interviewed again. Where did you go? Where did you stay (the casa particulares have to report every guest to the authorities within 24 hours after arrival anyway)? What’s in your luggage? What coastal places did you visit? Show all of your photos! Which Cubans have you had contact to? This took about 30-60 minutes. It wasn’t critical for my departure time because the plane had about 1 hr of delay, which is on the punctual end of Cubana flights. At least for Cuba I’m pretty sure they don’t get access to the databases of Facebook, Google and friends that other governments use to check their guests, and given their neighbor’s countless failed attempts at killing the Cuban president I can’t really blame them for being paranoid.
The other aspect that is highly variable is the permitted time in a country. It ranges from the 15 days till my return flight in Cuba to 180 days in Mexico. Nicaragua – and I think also Belize – only allowed 30 days. Special thanks for not asking how long I want to stay and not notifying about this limit. Looks like I’ll have less time to leave money in Nicaragua than I intended. I’m sure Costa Rica won’t mind.