A firsthand account of manipulated test results and border crossings in Central America.
Featured in Stab Mag
As our “new normal” slowly starts to resemble the old normal, travel is no longer a distant memory or a future shrouded in uncertainty.
With a negative PCR COVID-19 test as the key, surfers can once again unlock the door to the wave-rich coastlines. Which is what I planned to do when I booked a March trip to Nicaragua, looking to score the all-day offshores in the south and a certain thunderous beach break in the north. Being armed with antibodies after already having recovered from COVID-19, I figured the risk of travel when being tested at both ends was negligible.
While making transportation arrangements with a prominent tour company that I’ll refer to as “Nica Turismo,” I stumbled upon a moral dilemma when I was offered negative COVID-19 test results sans test.
Initially, I assumed the offer was regarding a test for my return. As of January 12, 2021, the CDC requires all air passengers arriving in the US from a foreign country to get tested no more than 3 days prior to their trip. I had been warned about the hassle of getting a test in Nicaragua. There is only one testing site in the entire country, and it’s operated by the Nica government.
However, after further probing, I realized the test wasn’t for my departure but rather my arrival.
For $50, I could bypass the brain swab and skip straight to the more enjoyable aspects of travel in 2021, like paying a ridiculous boardbag fee and sweating profusely under a mask for 18 hours straight. As a 27-year-old self-employed American with what my mother calls “hit by a bus insurance,” faux results were certainly tempting.
Getting a free COVID test in the States isn’t the challenge that it was 12 months ago, but the short turnaround time required for travel remains an issue. After spending a day researching, the cheapest test I found was $190, with many testing options costing nearly $500.
In the end, my belief in instant karma and the somewhat irrational fear of being patient zero for a new strand of American COVID that would wreak havoc on the Nicaraguan people beat out the lesser parts of me. I decided to follow through with both testing options to see how they would compare.
To my surprise, the test documents provided by Nica Turismo had a more professional appearance than my legitimate test results. The faux results included everything the real test results had and more. The document provided to me by Nica Turismo is clearly labeled with the letter head of a Salt Lake City-based lab. My patient information was listed correctly, as was the test type and result, and the results even had a “medical record number” that was listed as 01552-01606.
When I arrived in Nicaragua, I waited in a line to have my COVID-19 test results checked by a somewhat official-looking figure in hospital scrubs and a face shield. Knowing I had the legit results in my back pocket, I showed him my fake results and got in without a problem.
Upon getting settled, I spent my time between surfs digging into the business of fake COVID-19 tests, trying to get a deeper understanding of the supply and demand.
Southern Nicaragua is following in the footsteps of virtually every other popular surf destination and is now home to dozens of hotels, second homes, and surf camps, all of which have supplanted once-minute fishing villages. The resulting expat communities, it turns out, were Nica Turismo’s main clientele. Rumor has it that the head of Nica Turismo is incredibly active on all expat social channels and offers services like private charters in and out of the country, private airport transportation, and now fake Covid test results.
With this revelation, I felt as if I had cracked the story. The rich were using fake Covid tests to visit their second and third homes with ease, while we normal travelers were getting our brains tickled as the price of admission for adventure. This remained my belief until I traveled further north, where I met a pair of European travelers who I’ll call “Hans” and “Franz” for the sake of simplicity and my own amusement.
Hans and Franz crossed the Atlantic back in October. At the time, international travel was a luxury once again afforded to many in the EU. With each passing autumn day, European water and air temps dropped, prompting Hans and Franz to board the first available flight to Panama, where they planned to surf, drink from coconuts, and fall into steamy Latin love affairs.
Then cases spiked in Europe. Another wave of COVID-19, driven by mutated variants, forced the closure of many European borders. Rather than return home to another lockdown, Hans and Franz chose to continue to travel throughout Central America. The pair boarded a flight to Mexico, where they surfed and drank their fill until growing restless once more. Before continuing south to El Salvador, the two begrudgingly paid for the $200 COVID tests required to enter the country, a steep sum for any backpacker on a budget.
While traveling around El Salvador, Hans and Franz heard dozens of stories of successful fake Covid tests. Most people weren’t using a tourism agency—instead, they were using Photoshop. A pair of Canadian travelers gifted their real result documents to the European travelers so that they could manipulate the names, dates, and test numbers and cross the border.
Armed with the fake results, the pair decided to turn south with Nicaragua’s coastline in their sights. But first, they would have to cross two borders, in Honduras and in El Salvador.
One oversight turned out to be a fatal flaw in the pair’s plan. The documents they had manipulated contained barcodes that, when scanned, revealed the original information of each test. Of course, this was only made apparent to Hans and Franz by the immigration officials at the Honduras border, who separated the pair and individually informed them that they were denied entry.
Not being able to re-enter El Salvador with fake Covid Tests, and being barred entry from Honduras, the pair found themselves in a predicament. However, at the suggestion of their shuttle driver, they persuaded the Honduran Immigration officials to accept bribes. Their Covid test papers were now stamped as “approved.” After a small bribe at each border crossing, Hans and Franz found themselves in Leon, Nicaragua, where they rented a car and made a beeline for the waves.
After meeting Hans and Franz in the lineup and exchanging stories on the beach, the pair agreed to be interviewed anonymously, and afterward, we went our separate ways.
That night, after a few beers at the local watering hole, I was making my way home down a dusty farm road when a beat-up SUV with US plates pulled up beside me and offered me a ride. When the dust settled, I saw a friendly, scruffy face with unkempt blonde hair who looked and sounded strangely similar to Shaggy from Scooby-Doo.
He offered me a ride and I jumped in, and the two of us bounced along in his dilapidated, out-of-place Ford. When the topic of the day’s earlier interviews came up, Shaggy responded, “Well, why don’t you interview me? I used a fake Covid test to get down here, and I drove all the way from the States.”
And so I did.
Shaggy and his girlfriend had been holed up in Mexico for the bulk of the 2020 quarantine period. When they were finally able to resume their journey, they wanted to do so as quickly as possible. Nicaragua was their final destination, so they high-tailed it through Guatemala to El Salvador’s border.
In El Salvador, the couple was denied entry due to the fact that they were traveling with Rapid Antigen test results rather than the accepted PCR COVID-19 test results. Disillusioned with this quite literal roadblock, the couple was ready to take the loss and head to Guatemala City in search of a PCR test. Then they were approached by a stranger with a simple solution—a fake test.
For $100 at the border, Shaggy and his girlfriend purchased the necessary paperwork to fool the border officials. Then they booked it through El Salvador and Honduras within the 72-hour testing window that their false papers allotted. Just like Hans and Franz, Shaggy and his girlfriend made for the coast as soon as they crossed the border and haven’t looked back since.
My experience traveling with fake COVID test results, as well as that of Hans, Franz, and Shaggy, sheds light on a widespread issue in Central America. However, after making a few calls, I learned that this issue is not exclusive to the region. I’ve now heard stories of surfers using fake tests to travel throughout Indonesia and Europe. In both places, the sources suggested that the practice of manipulating documents was commonplace—and not just among those in search of waves.
In the case of Nicaragua, the country that has been broken, mended, and re-broken, time and time again. There’s no room for judgment when it comes to how someone is able to provide for their family—a sentiment that also applies to the immigration officials. Each image, document, and text exchange in this piece is redacted to ensure anonymity. I’m not in the business of ruining lives.
Our new normal will never be what it was before. As a planet, we caught this disease, and the scars from it will likely show for years to come. Perhaps the influx in tourism that fake Covid tests facilitate will bolster the local economies that were so badly ravaged by this disease, but it’s unlikely.
If you travel during the Pandemic and choose to do so with fake COVID test results, you must ask yourself, “Does the risk of spreading COVID in a country deeply impacted by the disease outweigh your own inconvenience?”