Central American borders can get real funky – Central American borders and dogs even more so. Below you’ll see our limited experience of 2012, a snap-shot of what actually happened rather than what you’re told by a thousand different forums and websites. The wealth of information out there in this regard, of course, is undermined by the fact that anything goes really at the border itself – despite the introduction of computer systems and other attempts at Standardization. How the laws are applied can only be understood after the event.
What really gets me as when you’re sweating away, going from one decrepit office to the next , in the heat and noise of a frontier, the busy looking people and the cops everywhere, there’s always a couple of street dogs wandering around, seemingly oblivious to the fact that where they are wandering around is in fact the division line between two distinct nations; one minute in one country, the next in the other depending on who’s throwing away the chicken bones – the pitiful creatures, half a tail missing and dusty, with no papers, no vaccinations, no $25 validation of said non-existent vaccinations while Vaga, (I imagine equally oblivious) sleeps her deep dog sleep under a fan in the van while I run around on her behalf.
OK, it’s not that bad, I exaggerate. Sure the stray dogs are there making a mockery out of the whole thing but it’s no real hassle. Read on to learn just how easy it is.
First up, I suppose is the British Columbia to Washington border – that is, the Canada to USA border, driving from Vancouver to Seattle. The only concern the border officials had for Vaga was to have her out of the bus so they could have the quickest of poke arounds inside. And from California to Sonora (USA to Mexico) at Mexicali, the guy just said, in Portuguese, “oh, there’s a dog”. Yeah, he was a Spanish speaking Mexican but he was kind of showing off his knowledge of Portuguese to Dunia; maybe that’s all he knew what to say about dogs, forgetting momentarily that the word “vaccination” is the same in most European languages. Anyway, I don’t think anyone will have too much trouble crossing into Mexico because there weren’t any problems at the other end, crossing out at the very quiet border of El Ceibo, with Guatemala. Well, that was the pattern anyway: From Guatemala to Honduras and at the Honduran side at the Nicaraguan border – no check for our dog at all – not even an acknowledgement of the dog. That was the whole of North America so far without a single pet issue at any border we had crossed – a comfort that got suddenly snatched away as we hit Nicaragua. That border could so easily have been a nightmare.
It was fortunate that the Nicaragua Border Constabulary didn’t notice that we had a right-hand drive vehicle and it was also fortunate that we had a Spanish language health certificate ready for them at the Agricultural Import Office. Both these things could have gone the other way – we only had the health certificate because we randomly remembered to ask for one from the vet back in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico, the time Vaga had pneumonia. Wasn’t so fortunate, the pneumonia, of course, but that’s another story. So, yes, at the Nicaraguan border, coming from Honduras, you’ll need a health certificate in Spanish and a vaccination record and ask for $15. It takes them an hour to type up something on an antiquated typewriter (they have computers but the typewriter’s still better for them). Best you kick-start this process then go and do the vehicle stuff while you’re waiting. At the other end, of Nicaragua, however, the Nicaraguans didn’t check whether Vaga had been legally imported. Crossing into Costa Rica on the Pan-American Highway was dog-hassle-free.
At that border, then, the Costa Ricans hardly acknowledged Vaga – nor did they on the Caribbean border with Panama, on the road south of the party town of Puerto Viejo. However, now it was the turn for Panamanians to ask for her documents and charge us $15, taking an age to get some kind of email or “Facebook Message” from their headquarters in Panama City – the official was checking them both. That was a particularly dripping wait on that humid, dusty road with heavy trucks going past across that ridiculous bridge they have there.
Following the Nicaraguan model of making a fuss over getting a pet into the country but not giving it a second glance on exit, Panama failed to look at the dog when we crossed north back into Costa Rica at the Palo Canoas border. But what a laugh, the messy pile of border crossing and duty-free mayhem that that border is. The Costa Ricans asked to see the usual papers and charged us $12 roughly for stamping them with a “Legit” stamp. The filosanitarium officers – they kind of prowl around, keeping their eye-out, but they only really knew we had a dog because I ticked the ‘Animal or Agricultural’ box on the import form that I filled out at the place where you check in your vehicle. That border is so chaotic, especially on the Costa Rican side, that you could slip an entire dog-sled team through there.
The other thing about driving in Central America with your pet is the fact that the cops can stop you anywhere and check all your papers. I mean, we didn’t have a problem anywhere with cops trying to look for a reason to bribe us or whatever, but it could kind of obviously happen. They did check coming into Honduras on the road by Costa Garifuna and they were satisfied with the dog papers we had. Carry a health certificate in Spanish and a vaccination record at all times and have those papers properly updated even if you never get to produce them at the frontiers – the fact is, even if you’re in a country without any legalization from the border (because you were never challenged), you might still actually require one although no one will know this for sure and up to date papers should always be sufficient.
This is our experience so far – and you see, no real issues moving around with Vaga in North and Central America. In the States, one bonfire story that we’d been told before we crossed south (in between the tales about beheadings, the corpses of aliens in the desert and the fact that some of the Mexican police wear the same gold ring as some of the gangsters…) was how, at the Honduran-Nicaragua border, I believe, these tropical border cops were getting into a bit of a stressed-out, hectic hoo-hah with my friend and his wife. They had been shouting at each other for ages because they wouldn’t accept my friend’s tiny little daschund type dog. In the end, a character appeared at the window and said he’d take her across the border down through the backwoods, cutting a path through the jungle, for twenty bucks. And my friend went for it; handed his dog over with $10; the other ten once he got through himself and they were reunited. Thing is, I come away thinking that the more porous the border actually is in reality then the harder it is to import export an animal officially – unofficially they cross all the time, in the hands of smugglers or like the wild dogs sniffing around for the next meal. You see, testing that theory, at the other extreme, is a very tight border such as the one between Arizona and Sonora, with thousands of miles of barbed wire fences patrolled by a special response team of radar-infrared, mobile scanners and satellite TV-Reality-Show helicopters: Here, there’s no control over your pet at all. I wonder if it’s the same going north into USA from Mexico – somehow it probably is; I imagine most of the border time is spent on you and yourself and what you are doing…
Unless, maybe one time, after a sudden and prolonged influx of very large hairy hounds, the US Border Police got wise and started checking that no illegal aliens were trying to get through in a dog-suit. ‘Hi, just me and my two dogs here… [Two people on the backseat in cartoon character outfits]. The one on the left is Goofy and this here’s, er, Bugs.’, ‘Gee, is that a daschund? It’s ears are so long. OK, on you go, have a nice day’.
Sorry, I’m drifting off topic.
Anyway, this little anomaly about the toughness of the border and how easy it is to cross with an animal is just an observation. As long as you have a Health Certificate in Spanish (updated every, I don’t know, it was four months for us) and a vaccination record (the European Pet Passport looks the business with all its pages, stickers, stamps and the little photo of the dog), you’ll be fine at any border. You might have to pay $15 for this and that and hang around while the document gets written out. Maybe you won’t. It’s all good. So far.