Tip2Top Nicaragua: First impressions were good. Then I got pulled over by the police

On the latest leg of my journey up the Americas, I crossed from Costa Rica into Nicaragua, where officials don’t seem to like journalists and I don’t care much for the grasping arm of the law

There is quite a contrast between Central America’s Caribbean and Pacific coasts. With the exception of El Salvador and Belize, all of the other countries of the region – Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico – touch both oceans. So far from what I have seen, the Pacific waters are grey and a bit muddy-looking, the winds coming off the sea are stronger and many of the beaches are black, their sand being derived from lava ash. By contrast, the Caribbean coasts are washed by crystal clear water under blue skies and the beaches are white sand, mostly though not exclusively, and are often lined by drooping palm trees. Picture postcard stuff.

This was certainly the case in northeastern Costa Rica, in the town of Cahuita and the small rainforest national park beside it. I spent a day inside it, watching monkeys do their thing and, well, just generally being in thrall to the wildlife and vibrancy of the forest. I’ve written about it on Tip2top.ie. After a couple of days there, I headed southwest, across the country to the capital San José. In most capital cities that are not familiar to me, the first thing I do is head for the cathedral area, which is almost invariably part of the centro historico and you can’t go wrong. Unfortunately, San José was a disappointment. There was no old town as such, and the cathedral replaced an 1802 building destroyed by an earthquake. No great architectural gem, no cluster of small streets and Spanish colonial buildings, or even more modern ones, from the 19th century, say.

So I did something unusual (for me, at any rate): I carried on through, to Puntarenas on the south coast and those grey Pacific waters – but a good starting point for the Nicaragua border next day. I got to the frontier close to noon ... which was when all the crap started.

Nicaraguan officials do not like journalists. Or, to put it more neutrally, a journalist presenting himself at the border seems to send them into a tizzy. First of all, there was the surly attitude:





Si. Retired, I added, giving the travel spiel.

Wait here.

And so she vanished with my passport and press card, leaving me at the glass screen. After about 30 minutes, a Nurse Ratched-type appeared and told me to move back and sit over there, pointing to an open space in the passport hall that had no chairs. After an hour, Ratched returned with a slew of questions – about my career, what I wrote, was I still a reporter, why was I entering Nicaragua, where was I staying, when would I be leaving and by what border crossing, etc, etc. I answered them as best I could, saying that I could not answer many because I was travelling day by day and going where the journey took me. I’m not sure she could quite handle this concept and kept on seeking cast-iron answers as to my plans.

“You know, this is the first country where I have been asked such questions. Why are you asking them?” I said.

She looked at me and walked away.

After an hour and a half, I was called to the screen, my passport stamped and I was free to enter. No explanation offered.

Customs was hilarious. In a sort of Keystone Cops-black comedy kind of way, done to the Benny Hill theme music.

Outside in the car park, there were two sentry box-like structures. Well, sentry boxes that had no significant identifying signs on them. I went to one first and got a form checked and was then dispatched to the other. There, the man wanted a photocopy of my bike’s Irish registration document and a photocopy of my driving licence. “Do you have a photocopier?” I asked. No, he didn’t. But hey, ride on your bike out of the gate over there and you’ll find a photocopying place down the road.

Over at the gate, they were having none of that. Leave the bike here and walk, they said.

I walked. I got the copies. The humidity must have been well over 90 per cent.

Back at Sentry Box Number Two, he asked for all the forms again. I handed them over. Where was the blah-blah form, he asked. You have it, I suggested. We went through my folder of forms and no, I didn’t have it and was pretty certain he, or Sentry Box One, were the last ones to have it.

He said I would have to go back to the beginning and get a new one ...

And so it went on until, finally, Sentry Box One and Sentry Box Two were happy. Now all I had to do was go back into the main hall, not to Nurse Ratched thankfully, but another bank of desks and screens. There, an entirely new person took all the papers and finally issued me with the customs permit to import the bike temporarily and therefore (but we shall see) leave the country in due course without a hitch.

Immediately inside Nicaragua, the road was lined with stalls, mostly selling soft drinks, fruit, other food and suchlike. But the first stall sold insurance. Let’s call them Frontier Mutual. There, two middle-aged ladies sitting at a desk in an open-air stall surrounded by corrugated iron sheeting, sold me third-party cover for a month for $12, backed up by an appropriately officious-looking sheet of paper, replete with rubber-stamp markings.

I am soooooo glad I had it.

First impressions of Nicaragua were good. The road northwest from the border, Highway 1, part of the Pan-American Highway, was just two lanes, one in each direction, but was in a reasonable state of repair. It was tree-lined, many of the trees being cherry blossom in full bloom, and the road hugged the shore of Lago Cociboica, which has an island in the middle that is home to two perfectly beautifully-shaped volcanoes. It was a very picturesque scene and I was already thinking to myself: well, whatever they say about Nicaragua, this is all rather pleasant.

After about 10 kilometres along this very straight road, a static police patrol of two young officers, supported by an automatic rifle-holding paramilitary police colleague, pulled me over. No other vehicles from the line of, I think, four vehicles were pulled over. The conversation was curt: passport, licence, and otros documentos para moto were demanded. I handed everything over, including the insurance cover, and they were examined in detail. The officer leading matters handed them back, except for the licence.*

He said there had been an infracion, an infringement, and he would be issuing me a ticket and would be retaining my licence. I said there had not been an infringement, that I was in a line of vehicles and was the only one stopped. Why was that? Surprise surprise, he wasn’t interested. But – surprise surprise again – I could pay the fine now. And how much might that be? He said $20.

I took out my wallet and he moved very close to me, shielding the view of me from passing motorists. I counted out the $20 – some fives and a lot of ones – and kept moving so everyone passing could see what was happening. Each time I did, he moved close to me until I put my arms over his right shoulder and counted the money behind his back, as it were – that is, in full view of the passing cars.

He didn’t like that.

“Cuál es el problema?” I asked, as he snatched the money and walked back across the road.

“Un recibo, por favor,” I shouted after him.

At which point the other officer, not the one with the gun who remained lounging against their patrol car on the far side of the road, approached me. I’m not sure exactly what he said but it was related to my request for a receipt. He showed me the yellow ticket book and envelope into which, had they taken it, my licence would have been placed. He indicated either that them not taking the licence was in effect the receipt but I suspect it was closer to “now f**k off out of here or we’ll take your licence”. It had that sort of feel to it.

I shouted thank yous at them with dripping disdain in my voice, which I hope they recognised, and rode away.

Half an hour down the road, a new patrol and another pull over. Again, I had committed an infraction, allegedly, and again, oddly enough, I was the only one singled out from a long line of vehicles, all proceeding at the same speed, which was 80km/h. No money was sought or suggested on this occasion but the policeman rang a pal, Mike, who spoke good English and who mediated.

At this stage, I had had enough. I told Mike about the earlier encounter and its outcome. I asked him if this was what I had to expect in Nicaragua, four hours into the country and during every encounter with the police? Mike, who sounded like a very decent bloke, was upset at this suggestion. It was a beautiful country, he said. Doesn’t look very beautiful to me, I countered. The phone, which was the policeman’s, went back and forth between the three of us, Mike translating. My licence would be taken and I would be issued with a fine. I could pay the fine next day at a bank and collect the licence on Friday, maybe Monday or Tuesday, in Managua.

I told Mike this was outrageous, that I was leaving the country on Sunday or Monday and that the Nicaraguan police appeared to me to be a bunch of crooks in uniform. I gave the phone back to the policeman.

After a few minutes, Mike was back to me. “He’s going to give you a break,” said Mike. I thanked him for that and for his translating. I thanked the officer for the break. He gave me back my licence and I rode off to the nearest hotel and quite a few beers.

Let’s see what the next few days bring.

*The incidents with the police described here followed an earlier encounter, in Panama, during which police took $40 from Peter Murtagh, about which he wrote on Tip2Top.ie

Peter Murtagh is travelling by motorbike from Tierra del Fuego, at the tip of South America, to Alaska, at the top of North America, and writing here regularly. You can also read his blog and follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram