On an overland motorcycle journey from Alaska to Antarctica, border crossings are a large part of the experience! Notoriously headache-inducing, here are our general tips for border crossings. For specific crossings, please refer to our other posts.
Officially speaking, you do not need Spanish fluency to complete any of these border crossing or enjoy travel in the countries. By all means, we did not have fluency when we started. However, trying to speak Spanish and having a smile on your face can make all the difference in whether your experience is positive or not. And for obvious reasons, the more Spanish vocab you have in mind - particularly border specific questions and phrases - the easier and more pleasant the border will be. Language prep resources abound, from books and classes to online self-prep and the Duolingo app. It is also a good idea to have Google Translate downloaded offline for when you’re really in a pinch and at a loss for words.
When approaching a border, dealing with lines, and fending off hawkers, it's easy to have a bad attitude during a crossing. Stress is usually the primary response. We've found it best to go in with the lowest of expectations, but the most positive of moods. We won't claim to have succeeded in that perfectly, but we do aim for it. Always keep in mind that regardless of how much prep you do or what your expectations may be based on rumors and research, border crossing experiences vary widely for each travelers depending on the specifics of their situation, timing, travel method, the people working that day, etc. Positivity and patience usually begets positivity and patience -- negativity and frustration usually begets negativity and frustration. Make friends in the lines, smile to the agents, know that there will be waits and hiccups... tolerate (if not embrace) them.
Read up on the countries and crossings before you approach! Refer to State Dept. information, our specific posts, and those of others to get a feel for what steps you will have to complete, which borders are a pain or a breeze, and what items or costs are officially needed for a successful crossing.
Know your own situation. Some people are have things in tow (like solar panels or pets) that may draw more attention from customs officials and may require extra steps. With every border crossing you will become better acquainted with what actions help to smooth out situations, and which aspects might trip things up. We are traveling with two motorcycles - both of which are titled under Alex's name. This makes our situation unique, and we have never found a resource from travelers before us that will prepare us for what is to come. But regardless - knowing what to expect in terms of location, steps, costs, potential scams, and more - has made a crucial difference to us at each crossing, and tends to speed up the process while eliminating potential stress and confusion.
Have plenty of copies of your documents on hand! Keep your originals labeled clearly in a plastic sleeve. Keep all documents - of your own production and those provided by border officials and insurance agents - in a safe and handy place. Particularly while approaching, crossing, or departing a border, you will need to show your documents repeatedly. Don't make it a pain to get them out each time.
As noted, be prepared with the knowledge of official costs at border crossings - not only so you are carrying the right amounts in the right currencies, but so that you are not caught paying an unofficial fee.
Most border crossings include the presence of currency exchangers. We found the majority of these exchangers to actually be very pleasant and reasonable, rather than in your face obnoxious or scammer. They save you a lot of trouble of tracking down a functional or fee-free ATM right away. It is always good to cross the border with the knowledge of the current exchange rate for the currency you have in hand, and do check the math of exchangers.