Three countries in one day

15 September – Day 55

El Tunco, El Salvador to Somoto, Nicaragua (through Honduras – where we didn’t stop other than at the border on either side of the country)
Distance:  388kms (including two border crossings)

Having stopped earlier than anticipated the day before, today was going to be a long day on the bike… particularly with two border crossings. However it was a Sunday – and a major national holiday (for Independence Day) throughout Central America, so although we knew we’d be delayed by parades, we were hoping for less traffic than normal (and shorter queues at the borders). And – we were right!

All of the border crossings were easier and faster than I expected… although they did, as per usual, involve lots of photocopying including both before and after certain documents were stamped. Also as per usual, the crossings involved the swarm of local ‘helpers’ insisting on walking us through the process… which is totally unnecessary, as we’ve got a rough idea of what to do from previous travellers, and almost without exception, the officials we’ve met have been incredibly helpful. And the locals hanging around the border are generally friendly too. I was only asked for money once, by a woman in Honduras who came up to me while I was watching the bike and essentially said ‘ hey, give me some money.’ This was after she’d offered Adrian a swig of warm coke from her half-finished bottle, then told him that she wanted to marry him! He declined both offers.

I can’t say much about Honduras, as we didn’t stop there at all. The border did feel a little less safe than some of the other borders, but it wasn’t too bad. And we didn’t get stopped by police at all – we’d heard of other bikers being stopped multiple times and hit up for a significant fine for some breach of a rule at each stop.

By the time we crossed into Nica, it was getting late… and it was pouring. No surprises there; it generally rains from about 3pm until morning.  A few kilometres after the border we passed a hotel which Adrian had read about from some other bikers… www.twomotokiwis.com  very, very basic (a cabin/shack, with an outside shower and long-drop toilet) but apparently a fantastic experience. And it was! It was like a homestay with a local family. We were the only tourists there and there was at least one, if not more, of the family (the parents plus six sons and three daughters) chatting with us at any one time. Or, to be more specific, there was at least one of the men in the family chatting with us. The women were hidden away in the kitchen and we didn’t see them other than when they served our food.

The family are also local guides to the canyon in the area, Canyon de Somoto. We decided that, if it wasn’t raining in the morning, we’d go canyoning and experience the famous Somoto ‘jump rocks’ for ourselves.

 

Border crossings along the Panam by Adrian

After researching for potential hazards, tips and tricks for the border crossings in Central America, I came to the conclusion that no two crossings ever appear the same and that generally border crossings have improved a great deal lately. Looking at blog posts from two years ago, it revealed a culture of corruption and bribes leading to extended delays and stressful border and country crossings. I had started writing a bit of a blow-by-blow of our Central American border crossings however they have all been comparatively straight forward. Obtain a temporary vehicle permit and stamp in your passport, cancel the vehicle permit and stamp out your passport. The specific requirements do vary considerably as well as the number of photocopies required however most of the officials have been professional and helpful in their requirements to complete each procedure and I have been able to get by with a minimal amount of Spanish. If any future overlanders have specific concerns, please email us.

Street food in El Salvador – yum!

Marching band and dancers on the road in El Salvador

One of the many marching bands / parades blocking the road. Tomorrow is Independence Day – so the locals are gearing up for their big celebrations!

14 September – Day 54

Juayua, El Salvador to El Tunco, El Salvador

Distance: 182kms (including several delays while we waited for marching bands / parades to clear the road…)

El Salvador continued to improve on me this morning – getting up at 5.30am to watch the sun rise up and over the volcanoes surrounding us was definitely a good start!! Wow – it was beautiful. The coffee plantations lining the lower slopes, the almost unbelievable verdancy of the grass and the trees (so much so that it the hills almost look like they are glowing), and the morning sky is amazing… generally, it’s the only time of day without clouds (no no, not Adrian – the actual sky!). We got going later than expected because, just as we were leaving, Adrian mentioned to the owner of the hotel that we were going into town for breakfast and a coffee and he insisted on making us a coffee with beans from his own plantation. So that was pretty cool… sitting in El Salvador, looking out over the volcanoes, with a local, drinking coffee from his own plantation.

And then our breakfast in town was amazing! The local speciality in El Salvador is a little savoury pancake thing (actually it’s a corn tortilla) stuffed with any number of ingredients including spinach, cheese, beans, chicken etc called Pupusa… it’s a little bit like a Gozleme – and is delicious!!! Even the fact that I was calling them ‘poops’ for short didn’t detract from the deliciousness of these little pockets of goodness. Somewhat embarrassingly, this was also the first time we’ve genuinely eaten ‘street food’ in Central America ie food from a tiny shack on the road, with a gas bottle and hotplate. I am already planning a poops bbq when I get home (although.. I may need to work on the marketing and/or come up with a new nickname for them… I can’t see my friends being too excited about any sort of food called poops!!!).

We headed up into the mountains to have an up close look at one of the volcanoes, Cerro Verde. However the higher we got, the thicker the fog became… and by the time we reached the summit, visibility was perhaps 50m… so all we got to see were the flowers in the garden. For that reason, we didn’t stay up there for very long.

Our way to our final destination for the day, we stopped at a lookout and met an American Harley rider, Bruce, who not only bought us lunch, but also guided us to a local beach resort town called El Tunco, where we stayed for the night. We had planned on going further, but it was already well into the afternoon and Bruce’s advice was that our planned stop was just too far away to reach before nightfall. Given one of our golden rules is no driving at night, El Tunco it was.

El Tunco is a very popular surfer town and is a holiday spot for westerners and El Salvadorians (?) alike. It’s a pretty black sand beach, and the town has a relaxed vibe. I overheard two girls saying that like felt ‘safer’ in El Tunco than other surfie towns nearby, because even though ‘you might get your stuff stolen’, at least you wouldn’t be threatened with a gun or machete?!!

After a spot of table tennis, a walk on the beach and some dinner, that was us done for the day. All very civilised, really!

The black sand beach at El Tunco

The black sand beach at El Tunco

Prolapses at the border

13 September – Day 53

Antigua, Guatemala to Juayua, El Salvador
Distance: 238kms (time on bike: about 6.5-7 hours including 3 hours at the border)

El Salvador did not make a good first impression on me.

It started in the last little stretch of Guatemala really… The queue to the border, several kilometeres long and three and sometimes four trucks wide (even though it was a two lane road)  didn’t help… although we were able to weave our way through to the front.. just. This ‘weaving’ including a section where I walked ahead of the bike and acted as a traffic cop, stopping bikes going off road in the other direction so Adrian could get through, and another section where there was literally less than a hair’s width between us and two  semi-trailers, one of which was moving. To get through the last little bit, Adrian had to turn the handlebars and get the mirrors just past the back edge of one of the semis before straightening up again to inch slowly, carefully forward and out of the ‘Lauren and Adrian motorbike sandwich’.

Having made it to the front, we were immediately surrounded (literally) by a group of men saying that they would ‘help us’ with the ‘very difficult’ paperwork to exit the bike from Guatemala. ‘No fee, no worry. I just help you. No problem. You want to change your currency. I help you too. This way, this way.’ Adrian did his best to say no, but there was one very persistent guy who just wouldn’t take no for an answer, and followed Adrian around as he got the paperwork, got documents photocopied (at every border crossing there are a myriad of documents you have to get copied including with an official stamp and without an official stamp– and there are special photocopy shops just for that purpose), stamped, photocopied again, had the bike inspected and finally got the Guatemalan temporary import permit cancelled. I don’t know how much the ‘helper’ actually helped… but we got the stamps etc we needed and then proceeded across the border into El Salvador.

El Salvador did not make a good first impression on me. I had about a two hour wait ‘guarding’ the bike while Adrian went back and forth doing bike import stuff (which was a saga in and of itself – at first, they would only give him a temporary 24 hour transit permit to cross the country but not actually stay here and it took quite a while and lots of negotiation to get the import permit needed. Although my Spanish is better, I can’t do it as the bike is in Adrian’s name).

I think the bad impression was mainly due to constantly seeing emaciated female dogs with terrible, raw angry prolapses. I’d never seen a dog (or any other animal, for that matter) with a prolapse. I’ve now seen several – and it ain’t pretty. It was awful. The dogs were clearly starving. And their insides were hanging out, just dangling outside. I actually felt ill. At one point, a very poor man who was selling (or trying to sell) padlocks, miniature walking sticks, big knives and nail clippers to people in parked cars and those queuing at the immigration building went over to one of the big rubbish bins scrounging for food scraps, which he emptied out onto the asphalt for the dogs to eat. It was such a kind, thoughtful gesture from someone who very clearly had very little himself, I almost started crying.

Welcome to El Salvador.

A little later, while I was still waiting, guarding the bike with my fiercest ‘don’t-mess-with-me-I’m-tougher-than-I-look’ stance (ah yeah: not really), some very friendly Guatemalan ladies stopped to talk with me while they were waiting to get across the border. So that was nice. And while I was talking with them, Adrian returned with the right import papers (we think… the proof will be in our ability to successfully, smoothly exit the country in a few days!!!) so we got going. We took part of the ‘Route of Flowers’ and it was incredibly pretty… bright flowers lining the side of the road, with coffee plantations (and sometimes macadamia or orange trees) lining the fertile volcanic-ash-soiled mountains tucked just behind the flowers.

Our destination was a little town called Juayua and I’m pretty sure that we were two of only four gringos in the entire place.  We found a hotel with a lovely view over the several (I think five or maybe seven?) volcanoes in the area, settled in, ate dinner and then drank beer on the terrace looking out at the mountains. It was lovely.

– And I started to like El Salvador more.