SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador- I entered El Salvador from Guatemala. I had thirty USD packed neatly away in my vest pocket to pay the ten dollar entry fee that I knew would come for myself, my wife, and baby. But as I walked through the gates of El Salvador, I found this money still in my pocket. There were no entry fees, we did not receive stamps in our passports, an immigration official just took our documents, fondled them for a moment, and handed them back.
In 2006 Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala formed an open border treaty. They called it CA-4. This agreement states that the people, and — of course — goods, from these four countries can freely cross each others borders.
Though this in practice does not seem to be the case. As I waited to go through exit immigration in Guatemala, I noticed that a young Guatemalan women in line ahead of me was having a very tough time getting out of her country. By the CA-4 agreement, she is suppose to be able to travel between the four countries of this region without impediment, though I am unsure if this works out in practice.
What it means for foreign travelers is that the immigration bastalion is now around the pariphery of the region, rather than each individual country. A traveler from a country that does not require a visa now can only get a maximum of 90 days to travel in all of Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala where you were once able to get up to 90 days for each country separately.
There is now no lingering for travelers in Central America: if you spend six weeks in Nicaragua — an easy thing to do — you only have six more weeks for the other three countries of the CA-4 before you need to make a touch outside of the region in Mexico, Belize, or Costa Rica.
As of now, you can leave and return to the region through Guatemala and Nicaragua as many times as the discretion of the immigration officials will permit, but Honduras has capped the visa runs at three: you can only enter and leave Honduras three times before they close the doors.
But this C-4 agreement means that you no longer need to pay the $10 entry fee for El Salvador. Around ten years ago, when this entry tax was initially levied, this $10 fee was enough to make a lot of travelers take the Honduras road through Central America on principle: Why would we pay a tax to enter that country when we can go through this one for free? El Salvador and Honduras are all too often just taken to be obstacles for travel between Nicaragua and Guatemala anyway — most backpackers just pass right through either country on their way north or south.
Now the El Salvador entry tax has been extinguished, and it is my impression that the country is all the better for it. It is not like that many foreigner travelers even cross this border anyway to warrent the tax as a revenue sink — add to this the standard amount of corruption that can be expected at land border crossings, and this tax becomes a mute point: I seriously doubt if much of any of this money actually ever made its way to San Salvador. The tax is now done with, it is free to enter El Salvador by land.
It was also free to exit Guatemala. As I was being stamped out of the country, I noticed large posters on the immigration booth windows telling me not go pay any sort of fee or tax. “This border crossing is free,” the posters stated. Though I have seen these signs before — read Corrupt Immigration Officials in Dominican Republic. I was prepared for dealing with a corrupt glance and a demand for backsheesh when exiting Guatemala — this seems to be a standard procedure — but there was none.
Travelers between the CA-4 countries are also not suppose to receive stamps in their passports — like in Schengen Europe, the initial stamp into the region is good for all of the countries. But I was stamped out of Guatemala as I traveled into El Salvador, and did not receive an entry stamp. I am unsure if this is standard procedure — if the single exit stamp from Guatemala counts as my entry stamp to El Salvador as well — or if this was an error on the part of the immigration official who officially marked in my passport that I am no longer in Guatemala.
I suppose I will only find out the next time I cross a border — it seems a little funny, by my passport it seems as if I am not in any country at all. Not a bad place to be, I must say.
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