Border crossings and funny money

I’m writing this is in El Salvador, so at this point the blog is about ten days and four heritage sites behind. But as the next site is in Guatemala, this seems like the right place in the action to insert these musings.

Having spent a month and a half in Mexico and two weeks in Cuba, it turned out I had not yet to fully appreciate the hectic nature of the schedule I’d set myself. In general, I’ve been finding travelling remarkably unstressful, even when visiting areas with high rates of violent crime (I’m looking at you Guatemala City) but in the last two weeks one thing as been making me nervous and that is land border crossings.

Since flying back to Mexico I have bussed across land borders five times, with another couple of crossings to come the day after next. So far three have been in tourist/traveller minibuses, one on a big scheduled coach service and once I caught a series of local buses to the border, walked across and caught another bus on the other side.

Why do they bother me? The problem is I can’t point to anything hugely scary, other finding your bus has departed with your luggage but not you. I think it is the cumulative effect of the illicit exit/entry charges often levied, young soldiers with guns and the crowd of freelance currency exchange men brandishing massive wads of notes at you as you get off the bus.

My worst experience with the latter was on the Guatemala – El Salvador border where I was the only gringo* on the bus and they descended on me like a pack of vultures, with one apparently trying to snatch my passport for good measure.  They all punch out their exchange offers on their pocket calculators as you frantically try to work out exactly how bad a deal it represents.   

It would be fine if I could just ignore the money exchange scrum, but I have to change money at the border because I need it for a taxi or bus long before I get anywhere near an ATM. I could have left the UK with a small amount of money in the currency of every country I’m visiting (as I once did Interrailing, back in the ’80s) but that would have made for a very bulging wallet. There is also the surprising fact that you do not seem to be able to exchange currencies in banks here, so you can’t arrive pre-prepared and if you leave a country with handful of unspent cash, you either have to accept daylight robbery rates of exchange at the border or carry around increasing amounts of unusable money.

Thank goodness El Salvador uses the US dollar. That is the only currency you can always exchange and indeed pay in wherever you are. I plan to stock up before leaving town.

* Yes, I know that for me that should say gringa.

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