La Libertad, El Salvador

Trip Start Jan 12, 2007
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Trip End Nov 19, 2007


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Saturday, September 29, 2007

After a month of leisurely living at the Chilamate Rainforest Eco Retreat, we had become soft and both found the idea of getting back on the road and dealing with corrupt cops and chaotic borders a bit daunting. So it was with much difficulty that we said goodbye to Meghan, Davis and Lluvia (on September 19) and started the long drive home.

We took 2 days to reach the Costa Rica/Nicaraguan border, spending our first night after Chilamate back at the Volcan Arenal area so that we could spend the afternoon soaking at Los Laurels, the budget thermal hot springs that we had hit on our way down.

We knew we had arrived back in Nicaragua two days later (Sept. 21) when, within the first 10 minutes of crossing the border, we had to weave our way through loose pigs, chickens, cows, horses, donkeys, tuk-tuks and ox-carts that were sharing the Interamerican Highway.

We spent our first night back in Nicaragua at San Juan del Sur, a tiny town on the pacific coast that is about an hour´s drive (on more terrible roads) from the Costa Rican border. It rained the night we were there but had cleared up enough by morning so that we had a good view of the bay and could see why the town was on the gringo map, especially for surfers.

Although choosing the campsite/hostel/hotel is usually the navigator´s job, I took on the assignment that night and completely failed in my mission: the mattress had a pungent/sour smell reminiscent of the Handsworth Secondary School football equipment room, and we left in the morning with our sleeping bags full of fleas (not the first time).

The next day we headed north up the Interamerican Highway to Leon, Nicaragua´s "other" colonial city (we had hit Granada on the way down). Although it was a drive we were both anxious about because of the hassles we had faced from the cops on the way down, we made it to Leon with nary a problem, only being stopped once by the cops at a routine checkpoint so that they could look at our paperwork.

Getting through the drive unscathed and finally escaping from the torrential downpours that characterize rainy season in Panama, Costa Rica and southern Nicaragua, seemed to set a positive tone for the rest of our time in Nicaragua (a country we had pretty much written-off based on our experience on the way down), and so we ended up spending 4 nights in Leon.

Although many of its colonial buildings - especially the churches - are beat up from the civil war that plauged the country in the late 70s and 80s, Leon has a lot of visual appeal: tiled sidewalks in various patterns, red-tiled roofs, alluring courtyards that can be seen from the street and a ring of mountains around the city in the just visible distance to give it all some context. Leon also had a certain "je ne sais quoi", a certain pulse that Granada seemed to be lacking, probably because it´s home to the national university and the historical centre of the Sandinista movement.

(Our view of Leon was also shaped by our hotel - Hotel Real - we splurged for (I owed Adrienne after my poor hotel choice in San Juan del Sur). For $35 a night, we had all the bells and whistles: complimentary breakfast, A/C, free internet, rooftop patio and a 24-guard to watch the van).

From Leon, it was a 3-hour drive north to Honduras and the Guasale border crossing. The drive was uneventful until about 25 kms before the border when, with Ades making a rare appearance in the driver`s seat, and on a stretch of dirt road that was particularly desolate and had pot-holes the size of moon craters, the van stalled and wouldn´t start again. The few beggars who took advantage of this stretch of slow-driving road to ask for money told us that were no "mechanicos" anywhere nearby, presenting us with the first real "pickle" of the trip.

But about 5 minutes after we stalled - just as the panic was really creeping in - out of nowhere an Aussie/English couple we had briefly met in Leon while volcano boarding (see below) a few days earlier pulled up behind us. He was more handy than I (not hard), jiggled with the battery wires and had us on our way in a few minutes. We drove away basically speechless, given we had seen only seen 3 other cars with gringo road-trippers during our entire time in Central America and given we had met this couple before.

Because the countries of Central America are quite small, and due to the way their borders fall on the pacific coast, it doesn´t take much time to drive through them on the Interamerican Highway. As such, we spent only 2 part days/1 night transiting through Honduras, just long enough to go through 5 police checkpoints, including one where they asked us if we had our "triangle", the orange reflective safety pylon. (Given that the usual practice in Mexico and Central America when your car breaks down is to put branches on the road - seldom are there shoulders - which the person may or may not remove after, it may actually be an infraction to not carry a triangle. But we doubt it, given that no other rules of the road seem to exist.) We had heard of other people getting ticketed for this so we had been covering ourselves and carrying our little orange triangle, and it brought smiles to our faces to see the cop´s face when "the hippies" in the VW Van pulled it out.

From Honduras it was on to El Salvador which hadn´t been big on either of our "to see" lists from the get-go, and so we had planned to spend only 1 night there as well. But 1 night - in the tiny town of La Libertad on the pacific coast - became 2 when something I ate disagreed with me and left me immobile and in bed for 24 hours. Not sure I will be up for coco frios (fresh coconut juice) or "fresh" garlic prawns any time soon.

Even though El Salvador is also just a decade or so removed from a bloody civil war and still has a dangerous reputation, we found the border officials and police who manned the checkpoints to be the most professional of any country we have visited. El Salvador also has excellent highways - at least the one´s we drove - that rival Mexico´s toll highways in terms of smooth surfaces and wide shoulders.

After El Salvador, the only country between us and our return to Mexico was Guatemala.

Highlights:

- Volcano boarding, Leon: Bigfoot Adventure touts itself as the only "volcano boarding" operation in the world. The volcano - Cerro Negro - is about a 45-minute drive from Leon and last erupted in 1999. It took us about 30 minutes to hike to the top carrying our custom made wooden toboggans. We stopped en route take a look at the backside of the crater which was partially blown out in 1999. The sulfur gas steaming from the vents was so strong we could hardly take a breath. We then climbed to the summit where the view was far reaching and the landscape completely barren, as if we were on the moon.

It was only once we got to the top that the guide told us that: (1) the volcano has been erupting on a 7 year cycle and is overdue now; (2) 1 out of every 10 boarders ends up bleeding; and (3) the week before, another guide had her cell-phone hit by lightning while on top of the volcano. With this information racing through our heads, we got ready for the ride, a 400 metre drop on fine sand, at a 40 degree angle, down the side of the volcano. For an optimum ride we were supposed to mimic the stance of a bull-rider - one hand on the rope, the other in front of our face. Easier said then done, but Ades followed the instructions and had a particularly strong ride, drawing rave reviews from the guide.

- Centro de arte Fundación Ortiz Gurdián, Leon: A quintessential Latin American art gallery where the setting - 2 restored colonial buildings, replete with: open-air courtyards that let in the natural sunlight, uneven tiled floors, chunky wooden doors between rooms and rugged wooden beams across the ceilings - was as beautiful as the art on display.

Lowlights:

- Missing Justin and Julia´s wedding on September 22. Why did all our friends choose this year to get married?
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