Secretly I have always wanted to have to pay a bribe to get into a country. Last week I had the opportunity.
I made my every-six-months visa run to Penas Blancas with a friend of mine. She told me she didn’t want to go it alone and, since by chance our visas are up in the same week, I led her through the process. She told me that the last time she made her visa run, they didn’t want to let her back into the country on the same day she left (by law you have to be out 72 hours).
“So I was stuck on the Costa Rican side of the border,” she told me. “And some guy in a wheelchair tugged at my shirt and told me if I paid him, he could get my passport stamped. What was I gonna do? I had no other choice! So I ended up paying some cripple $20 to get my visa stamped!And they gave me a vehicle entrance stamp because he was in a wheelchair!”
I had to laugh…not just because of her story but also because I didn’t know some people still thought it was okay to use the word cripple!
Crossing the border can be a bit daunting if not well prepared. Most people are not well prepared. A hustler quickly found us as we approached the border and offered to help us through. We asked him a few questions about the logistics of crossing and told him we wanted to return the same day. “Oh, look man,” he said in Spanish as he gave a quick glance around to see who was listening. In a hushed voice he said, “In Costa Rica you won’t have any problem, but the police on the Nicaraguan side are hijos de putas and will probably try to ask you for money. They do it to everybody who wants to return within the 72 hours.”
I gave our new friend a concerned look. “How much?”, I asked.
“Probably $10” he said.
I furrowed my brow to disguise that on the inside I was actually quite excited about having to buy off a cop. “A la gran puta,” I exclaimed.
Our hustler friend was quite helpful in getting us through the border. The Nica side charges $12 to leave, payable only in US dollars. We got our stamps out, walked to the Costa Rica side and passed through no problem. We did have to wait an hour before returning for our entrances to be registered in the system before exiting. No problem, we had breakfast and watched the poor travelers on a passing Tica bus get their luggage searched. At about 9am we passed back through the CR border into Nicaragua.
On the way back to the Nica immigration there is a checkpoint where they make sure you have your exit stamp from CR. Just beyond that were two friendly police officers who said they recognized us as crossing over earlier that morning. They were all smiles so I was all smiles as I explained that we live in Nicaragua and we love Nicaragua and we only wanted to get our visas renewed so that we can stay legally.
But I smelled the set up that was happening.
“Listen,” the sharply-dressed official said to me in Spanish. “Normally you have to be out of the country for three days, you know that, right?”
I played ignorant of that little detail.
“You guys can cross back over to Nicaragua, no problem. But we will have to charge you a small fee.”
Uh huh… How much?
He glanced over at my friend who was out of earshot of his now-hushed tone. “Ten bucks each,” the cop said in English.
BAM! This is what I have been waiting for! Three years in Central America and finally I can check “pay a bribe” off my list of things to do!
I took a step back and gave the border cop an icy look that masked my excitement. Sure, $10 per person is waaay less than we would spend killing three days in CR, but it was probably triple his daily salary. With the handful of expats doing their visa runs every day, I figured he was doing pretty well. It was time to haggle.
“Ten dollars per person?,” I asked. “Do you have an official receipt you can give me?”
The cop shot a fast look at his buddy who walked off to greet the next small group of border crossers. He then put pulled me aside, put a hand on my shoulder and said quietly, “Look, give me $10 for both of you and we can call it good.”
I didn’t give his half-price offer much thought before I countered, “How about if I give you C$100 ($5) for the two of us and I don’t tell anyone you asked for a bribe.”
Neither of us wanted any trouble but both of us wanted me to pay him. He quickly agreed. I pulled out a C$100 bill and he accepted it with a head nod. I called for my friend and we continued on our way to the Nica immigration station.
We got our 90-day visa stamps without any problem and explained what happened at the checkpoint to our hustler friend. He seemed impressed I was able to talk them down. He then led us to the exit where there is one last passport check. The guy at the checkpoint noticed we had left and returned on the same day and says, “”Normally you have to be out of the country for three days, you know that, right?”
I became livid. I yelled at the guy saying that the passport control stamped us back in so we are legal and that we already had to pay a bribe to get back in. I made sure EVERYBODY within 200 feet could hear me. I said, “So how much? Huh? How much do we have to pay for you to let us get back in?!” The cop at the checkpoint, knowing all eyes were on him, said in a raised voice, “You may have had to pay back there but I don’t take bribes!”
We stared each other down in silence for a long, unrelenting moment.
“Pass!” he barked. I quickly handed our hustler friend a couple of bucks for his help and we shot through the gate.
“Wow,” my friend exclaimed. “That was sooo much easier than last time!”