About 3 years ago, I departed on what is, to this day, the most thrilling trip I’ve experienced while living in Costa Rica. With a friend, a pair of back packs and our trusty 160cc motorcycle we set course towards Nicaragua. A 6-hour drive under the sun awaited us, but my excitement did not allow for fatigue or annoyance. On the contrary, the small roads of the west of Costa Rica had never seemed so liberating nor promising. The beauty of the tropical dry forest, the grandness of the two volcanoes we saw on the way, as well as the clandestine aesthetic of our surroundings, could only be undermined by one thing. Bureaucracy.
We made it to the Northwestern Border to Nicaragua in Peñas Blancas and, after 30- minutes or so, we finished our passport procedures. Then we went to the vehicle customs office, where we intended to pay the tax on exiting the country with a vehicle… except this wasn’t possible, because the taxes had to be paid in a bank in a city, rather than at the border. Defeated, we headed back to Liberia, the closest city: 2 hours away. Tired, after 8 hours of driving, we decided to stay the night at a cheap Airbnb and headed to the bank in the morning. After providing due documentation and paying, we returned to the border, still eager to continue our adventure. Following 45 minutes on the Costa Rican side of the border, we crossed the no-man’s land. The immediate change of scenery was astonishing to me. Whereas its counterpart had mainly buildings, much of this side of the border had tents with government officials tending to long lines of tourists. The whole process seemed ridiculous to me; we were given pieces of paper after showing various documents and were told to go to different tents and buildings in what seemed to be a random order, only to show the same documents again. Eventually, after getting our passports stamped, we arrived at customs to deal with our motorcycle.
This is when we found out we weren’t going to make it to inland Nicaragua in this trip. The official asked us for an insurance document that we had left home, one we didn’t need to give to Costa Rican officials and one that was represented by a sticker on the motorcycle. The official said they couldn’t give us legal permission to take the motorcycle. But here’s the thing: there is a law preventing people from crossing the border twice in the same 24 hours and we were already legally inside Nicaragua. We couldn’t get out and our motorcycle couldn’t go in. This was my first border experience.
The second time I crossed a border by land was much less eventful. I was driving with a friend in the south of France and after passing by some bushes he said without much tone in his voice: “Cool, we’re in Spain.”
It is this casual approach to such an event that originally bewildered me. We had just crossed a line that had been determined by wars, by geography, by history itself. It took a second to penetrate and the only acknowledgment of it was a “cool”. Right after, there were gas stations with signs in Spanish, a majority of European plate numbers with an “E” rather than an “F”, and plenty of details signaling to us that we were no longer in the same territory. For a while, though, it was no more than that: a detail. This to me, like to many visitors to Europe, was otherworldly.
Borders like I had seen them before had never been a “detail”; they were a very significant political, physical, but most importantly social barrier. One with monetary and bureaucratic disincentives, intentionally implemented to separate “them” from “us”. A border facilitates the development of exaggerated or plainly false ideas on one’s nation and on those surrounding it by isolating the population. It can initiate a positive feedback loop that diverges cultures by allowing the main information on each other to be communicated by the media, stereotypes and rumors rather than by a real-life exchange.
This was the experience I had in Costa Rica, where xenophobic comments are not uncommon to hear while taking a bus, while having a conversation in a store or while hearing the preacher’s sermon in church. Recently I read an article on a Nicaraguan Uber driver that had lived for 20 years in Costa Rica, yet she lied about her nationality to avoid uncomfortable reactions from her clients. The story didn’t surprise me, but it did remind me of this ridiculous separation between the two countries. On the other side of the border, police officers are known for stopping cars with Costa Rican plates systematically. The bad relations between the countries were not started by borders (although the annexation of Guanacaste is surely a factor), but the fact of having a barrier complicating economic and social interchange unquestionably worsens the situation. I am not an advocate for immediate suppression of the borders, as I understand the complications that the cultural and economic differences of the two countries present. Nevertheless, I am an advocate for their suppression in a future where Central America’s relations have progressed into a more integrated system.
Central American integration is not a new idea, though. Since the 1800’s there were efforts to bring the geographical area closer, for instance, the Federal Republic of Central America which existed since 1823-1841 but was eventually dissolved for differences in ideology between the provinces. Most recently, the most successful effort has been SICA (Sistema de Integración Centroamericana) which addresses many economic, social and political issues, hoping to strengthen and unify Central America (along with The Dominican Republic which is also part of SICA). The entity, created in 1991, has had notable success in terms of trade agreements as well as environmental policies, but is not close to having the international power or credibility the European Union has. Another integration effort worth noting is the CA-4: established in 2006, this is an agreement between Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to implement free movement between the countries without the need of a passport. The agreement does not allow, however, free movement of goods and services, but it is a giant step in Central American integration- more than one has proposed the idea of expanding the treaty.
The experience of crossing borders across the European Union has shaped my outlook on physical and political divides. The dynamics of the area give me a desire to see something similar in all of Central America. It is hard to imagine something like this happening in the near future, particularly considering Nicaragua’s ongoing political instability issues, but in the grand scheme of things it seems we are heading into that direction. Populists, protectionists and separatists have risen and will continue to rise, but progress is not a straight line. Evidence shows that, if not in 5 years, if not in 50 years, most likely at least in 100 years, not only Central America, but our whole globe will be more united.