Monday, April 29, 2013

El Salvador, IS IT SAFE?!

We are currently in Nicaragua and recently met a couple of young, French surfer dudes who couldn't believe we had traveled to El Salvador. They asked if it was safe. They had heard that it was too dangerous in El Salvador, so instead, they spent their travel holiday in Nicaragua.

Similarly, we met a German/Romanian couple traveling with their 2-year old in a near-armored vehicle who completely skipped El Salvador in favor of driving through Honduras.  And yet, we skipped Honduras to avoid the "dangers" and "hassles" of traveling through the corrupt murder capital of the world. It seems no matter where you are, everyone always thinks it's more dangerous over there. 

Unfortunately for us, the naturally risk-embracing surfing world seems to know what we do: other than the scourge of clumsy, nerdy bandito boys, El Salvador is no more/less dangerous than anywhere else in Central America. For that reason, the 2 surf spots where we stayed were very crowded.

We stayed at Sunzal Point Hostal for our first 11 days in El Salvador. (Scott's last post). We parked in their mango-littered yard where we enjoyed all-you-can-eat mangos. While we were there, the waves got so big that we couldn't surf. Two people died on consecutive days during the biggest of the swell.

The deadly wave/rock at Playa El Tunco

All you can eat mangos!

While in Sunzal, we were introduced to their national food - the Pupusa.  These are dough-balls, filled with cheese, beans, and/or meat, smashed flat and cooked up on a skillet. You can buy 3 of these for a dollar! (The official currency of El Salvador is the US dollar) Each night, we would buy 6 of them and add a few of our own fixins - avocado, tomato, onion, sour cream, salsa, etc. Papusas are definitely my favorite Central American food, so far.

The magic ingredients

Deliciousness in a doughball

In Sunzal, we befriended Dafydd from New Zealand and Marius from Germany. All of us wanted to escape the crowded waves of Sunzal, so we gave them a ride 5 hours south to the well-known surf spot, called Las Flores. They stayed at the hostel, and we parked right on the beach, within reach of their wireless internet, for free!

The Las Flores crew

Las Flores is the best wave we've surfed, but unfortunately we were there during the North American spring break.  Many adults, and worse, ripping 14-year-old boys, were on holiday at the 2 resorts near the beach.  For this reason, I think I averaged only about 1 wave a day.  No bueno.

In addition to the surfing, a daily activity was rescuing stuck vehicles. Everyday, Scott pushed at least 1 stuck vehicle out of the sand. In fact, the moment we arrived, El Tigre pulled out a big truck (pic below). We eventually got worried about getting out ourselves. We lowered the air pressure in the tires and put El Tigre in 4wd Low. No problem, even with the emergency brake on - oops.

Friday, April 26, 2013

El Tunco, Sunzal, and the Bandito Boy

by Scott

Other surfing overlanders rave about El Tunco, El Salvador so we were looking forward to staying there and surfing the famous point at Sunzal. Things didn't work out so well. I spent an hour walking around in the oppressive heat, trying to find a decent place to park for the night. Then, I spent another hour walking around trying to find any place to park for the night. Most of the hotels/hostels said no. I finally found one that said yes for $2! It wasn't great, but it was cheap, so I went back out to the highway to get Heather and the truck.

I'd been walking around Tunco for 2 hours, so I thought I knew my way around pretty well. We drove down a narrow one-way street until we encountered a big Pepsi truck coming the opposite direction. The workers parked the truck, got out, and started chatting. When I asked if they were going to be long, they just shrugged. I moved some orange cones so that we could squeeze past them (we had only inches to spare on both sides of the truck). After replacing the cones, a local, someone I'd seen multiple times that morning, told us that we were the ones going the wrong way. This is after he'd walked over to check out our truck before we squeezed past the Pepsi truck, and he didn't say a word. Furthermore, the Pepsi truck was the first vehicle I'd seen in 2 hours going the "right" way on that street. Argghhh. 

We do a multi-point turn, move the cones, and squeeze past the Pepsi truck again. We go a different route to arrive at our $2 parking spot. However, when we get there, the security guard tells us that we can't park there unless we're staying at the hotel. I keep telling him, in passable Spanish, that I already got approval from the woman at the bar. Finally, I make him follow me to the bar. I ask her to confirm that she gave me permission, but she says sorry. She admits she said we could park there, but that she called the owner after I left and he said no. Arggghhh. 

By now, I am ready to bail on Tunco/Sunzal and head 4 hours to Las Flores. Heather, being more rationale, and not suffering from the onset of heat stroke, insists on going back across the river to the village of Sunzal. I reluctantly agree, but before we can escape El Tunco, we once again find ourselves stuck behind the same damn Pepsi truck. This time, both of us are going the "wrong" way down the meaningless one-way streets of El Tunco. Arggghhh.

After the Pepsi truck finished all of it's deliveries, we finally made it to Sunzal. We ended up spending the first night in the yard of a friendly Canadian transplant. The next day, we settled in at Sunzal Point Hostal for two weeks. Things were way more relaxed in Sunzal than in El Tunco. The Salvadoran manager convinced us that we should stay through the hyper-busy Easter week. It was probably a good choice. We met some cool people and things remained pretty quiet...until the night of the bandito boy.

Our camping spot at Sunzal Point Hostal

It was the hottest night we've ever spent in the truck. Neither of us was sleeping well. That was probably a good thing. At 2am, Heather heard the bear bell, and noticed our screen door slightly ajar (at night, we put a carabiner through the handle of our door, which is anchored to the sofa frame with a shoe lace, to which we attach a bear bell). Heather elbowed me awake and whispered that the door was open. I lifted my head slightly from the pillow, and could see a round-faced 12-year-old boy with wire-rimmed glasses, a backpack, and a flashlight trying to figure out how to open the door. Fudge! The Salvadoran version of Ralphie from A Christmas Story was trying to break into our truck!

Ralphie's hole that we patched with barbed wire and sticks

I had the mace and the air horn ready, but instead, in my deepest, most intimidating baritone, I shouted, "You better run!" Realizing he probably didn't understand English, I followed that up with, "corre, corre, corre!", which is the command form of "run, run, run!" in Spanish. I don't think he needed the translation. He ran. Not fast though. He was like Ralphie in his snow suit as he ran back through a hole in the fence not far from our truck. I could have easily caught him, but I'm glad I didn't bother. My Spanish isn't good enough to explain to the locals why a half naked gringo would be chasing a young boy down an alley at 2am. Plus, had I caught him, what would I have done with him? We would've been up all night with the police, and what would be the charge--opening a door without permission? As it was, the adrenaline wore off, we took a shower to cool off, and we were back asleep by 3am.

Monday, April 15, 2013

El Salvador Border Crossing

After a few weeks in Guatemala we were armed and ready to cross into El Salvador.  Thanks to (again) for their step-by-step instructions. (For anyone following their directions, they did get their rights and lefts confused after an unplanned u-turn).

We successfully cancelled our Guatemala vehicle permit and made our way to the El Salvador vehicle permit office.  We anxiously filled out all the paperwork checking and double-checking our step-by-step instructions to make sure we did everything correctly. The lady behind the counter told us that the permit system was down and we would have to wait until it came back online.

It started to make sense why there were nearly 50 trucks parked along the road also waiting for their vehicle permits.  We later learned that many of the truckers had been waiting for over 12 hours (overnight) to get their permits.

It also started to become clear that there was no way we would get our vehicle permit in time to drive to a camping spot.  We have a general rule that we do not drive at night in unknown areas/countries. We popped the awning a bit to shield our door from the blazing hot sun and settled into the truck for a long, hot day in no-mans land.  At least we had somewhere to sit, cold beverages, and some shelter from the sun.  That is more than I can say for the poor guys (pictured below) who were entertaining themselves on their phones in the little bit of shade they could find.

We got our permit around 6 pm and told the security guy that we would be parking at the border for the night.  I can't say this sounds like a safe situation but on the contrary, the security guy with the big gun made us a feel a little safer. We even had wildlife to look at right outside our windows (see below).

We woke up on Monday morning to hoards of people setting up roadside shops and tons of traffic.  Since then, we have realized that Sundays are a much more mellow day to cross the border (as long as the permit system is running).  Despite the hassle, we now have a new rule: cross borders on a Sunday.

Saturday, April 13, 2013


After only a few days in Belize, we headed to Guatemala.  The border crossing, AGAIN, was pretty easy thanks to step-by-step instructions from  

Guatemala is a gorgeous country with caves, rivers, large lakes, ocean, mountains, good smooth roads, and lots of really bad roads.  Our visit to Guatemala started at the mother-of-all Mayan ruins called Tikal.  Indeed, they were impressive, but to be honest, our favorite part was the wildlife. Tikal is set in a lush jungle where we watched spider and howler monkeys, with babies clinging to their backs, seemingly flying between trees. We also saw our first toucan.  Did you know that toucans are actually pretty small? Not how I remember them from the Fruit Loops commercials.

You can't climb most of the big ruins in Tikal because they are too steep and people have died in the past

Paddleboarding up the Canon del Boqueron
After Tikal, we hit a few tourist destinations, including a hot waterfall (El Paraiso), a river canyon with towering limestone cliffs (El Boqueron), and a more famous place called Semuc Champey. Semuc Champey is a series of crystal clear pools set in the jungle on a bridge of land that happens to be over a river. You would never know there is a river below you while you swim in the crystal pools above.

For me, all of these places were awesome, because, among other things, I love swimming in clear, fresh water.  Driving to most of them took a long time on horrible roads. For Scott, it was an okay experience, but nothing he would've done without me--too much wear and tear on the truck.  Oh well, we can't agree on everything. Heather gives Guatemala two thumbs up.  Scott, gives one thumb up and one thumb down.

One of the gorgeous pools at Semuc Champey

In each country we visit, I finally get the geography and history education that I never absorbed as a youth (okay, as an adult too).  It seems to be a trend here in Central America (we're in El Salvador as I write this), that the history of the U.S. in these countries has not been favorable.  Quite the opposite, in fact.

As for the recent history in Guatemala (1950s and beyond), this is how my simple mind understands it...  Leading up to 1960, the poor and indigenous population had reached their limits of poverty, starvation, and racism. Uprisings culminated in the start of the Guatemalan Civil War in 1960.  The U.S. supported the Guatemala government because they felt any move against the government was in the direction of socialism/communism.  During the civil war, Guatemalan military officers were trained by the US Army. It was later learned that the U.S. was aware of the Guatemalan military's murder, rape, torture, and genocide of the Guatemaltecans. In 1999, the US government all but apologized for America's support of the brutal civilian killings. Unfortunately, this was after 200,000 people had already been killed. Clearly, it's much more complicated than this, but too much for this blog.

After the war ended in 1996, Guatemala did witness both economic growth and successive democratic elections. Guatemala felt safe, and the people were friendly, but I wonder how these people look at us Americans without just a hint of disdain.

I put together our pictures with detailed captions hoping to tell the story of our visit to Guatemala here:  Guatemala pictures