“Are you not worried?”, my mum said over Skype.
“Not really, it’s always fine” I replied, “You talk to people, they tell you not to drive this road, don’t drive after dark, there are bandits with AK47s here on Sundays and so on”.
Reflecting later on our conversation, as we readied ourselves to complete the drive from Antigua, Guatemala, down the Pan-American and across the border into El Salvador, I realized that those words probably did little to belay her fears.
It is strange, but through the sea of friendly faces, smiles and waves, the stunning scenery, the lush greens and quaint villages, your personal safety and any threats to it are far from your mind. Or mine at least, but Dee probably just absorbs enough worry for the both of us.
As usual though, everything was more than fine. Our time in Guatemala offered many highlights but was more spent both static, in Spanish school and working online to try and put away a little bit of money towards shipping around the Darien gap (plus paying to actually get there).
The border crossing into El Salvador was actually one of our easier ones, having a longer process actually clearing the exit papers from Guatemala than clearing it into El Salvador at the Valle Nueva crossing. We pushed through and as we rose from the relatively low-lying crossing point, and wound through the baking heat, we eventually reached the first towns and first signs of the lush tropical greens that we had come to see as synonymous with Central America.
Our first stop was the small town of Juayua, where we found (thanks to our trusty companion iOverlander) a secure little lot to park in, with a few facilities and a surprisingly decent view over the town itself.
Tired, sweaty and hungry, we immediately walked into town to explore and find some local foodstuff to eat at the weekly food festival before the light went. While apprehensive, the town delighted us with a vibrant backdrop of vendors, musicians and colorful locals. As we sat in the main square awaiting our very first pupusas, we were joined by a hilarious character, who told us her name was ‘Mayonaisa’, and when we politely nodded, burst into a cackle of thigh slapping laughter.
I have little to no idea what she was saying, but her gestures and twist of features as she imparted her wisdom kept us in stitches alongside her for a good 20 minutes.
After eating and taking a further wander around the square, we saw a sign for a reptile house, and being only a dollar, thought it would be worth a quick visit, if only to try to memorise a small selection of the local fauna that could cause us harm. Evidently, by far the most memorable part of this experience was the fact that we were allowed to bring the hound along, and watch as he tried to figure out what the hell the python in the tank was.
Back in the campsite car park/front yard later, we sampled a few of the local beers, laughed and joked and awaited the next day.
Our first activity in El Salvador was to be a jungle hike and waterfall tour. I make no secret of the fact that “neither a runner nor a hiker be”, hiking to me, usually seeming to be just (by its definition) walking for the sake of the walk itself, but I must admit, this was rather special. The hike was to take us across 7 waterfalls, rappelling down several, jumping from some and with a swim in a few cool mountain pools along the way. With the GoPro on video mode most of the time, I only captured a few actual photos. The real star of the day, however, was the hound, who sprinted up and down waterfalls with ease. To stop him running away, he was tied to my backpack on a short leash, and as I on several of the larger rappels struggled with my footing and gripped the rope, he confidently bounded along beside me easily traversing the terrain without a moment’s hesitation.
Our next stop was on the coast near the world famous surf break of El Zonte and parked up at a little coastal hostel with a big car park that allowed camping. While we did not feel unsafe in any way, the statistics being what they were was more than enough to prohibit us from entertaining the thought of wild camping.
The campsite and area were pleasant enough, and we enjoyed a few beers and a fish dinner, as well as the virgin flight of the drone, enjoying the coastal breeze and the chilled, surf-oriented vibe on the coast. We returned to the vehicles and watched as one of our first truly severe tropical storms began to grumble its way across the sea.
We were in bed when it first hit, and it was the wind physically rocking the car that first woke me. Worried that my pop top was going to tear clean off, I jumped out and brought the sides in, monitoring the scene around. As the thunder illuminated our surroundings every few seconds, I saw that the area had flash flooded in the torrential rain, and that the whole dirt parking lot was now under a solid foot of water. In the flashing light I was able to see a selection of our personal items, flip flops, plates, chairs, being washed around the area. Moreover, although our awning is home designed to easily withstand this level of wind, it did not account for the level of rain, and had begun pooling water to a pont where it was bending the aluminium arms that support it.
Deciding that we had lost or broken enough stuff already, I decided it was worth braving the weather, jump out and save our things, and take a better look at the large palm trees that surrounded us, make sure that there was no way they were likely to fall on our vehicle and squish us as we slept. I jumped out into the knee deep water, and began trying to compile my things, I grabbed the flip flops and chucked the majority of the water from the awning, tired and immeditately soaked I started using the flip flops and whatever else I could find to further prop up the awning, try and force a slope to it that would cause the water to run from it. I grabbed at something else from the water, producing the live end of my extension cable, the other still plugged into the hostel wall, as if I was not already worried enough about getting struck by lightning, it was by the luck of the fact that the shoddy DIY Salvadorian wiring must have already blown that I was not dealt a few hundred volts. I jumped back in the cruiser once the worst had began to pass and toweled myself off as much as possible and crawled into bed to try and achieve something that resembled a nights sleep before the early morning sun baked me awake.
The following day, as we picked up the pieces I had missed and attempted to dry out our goods, the campsite manager came over, to request that we moved the vehicles 90 degrees. I explained that this would mean we would have to pack everything up, and that seeing as we were the only vehicles parked on an acre plot, and there was no reason to do so, would he not allow us to stay where we were. He said no, and, slightly sleep deprived, we said “look man, there is no need for us to move, and if we have to pack up, we will just leave.” He then slammed open the gate and said “good, leave then”.
It is such a rarity that we meet someone unfriendly or unreasonable and we were quick to follow his suggestion. Luckily, given the area we were in, we were able to drive less than a mile away before we found a better place to camp. This time, cheaper, nicer and with a much more chilled vibe, we camped up with a local family and spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the beaches, then sitting and drinking with the family, even convincing Reece to crack out his guitar and serenade the grandmother with his songs fir Mothers day in El Salvador.
That was pretty much it for our time in this, the smallest Central American nation. With the cities being too dangerous to visit, and the coastline being much of the same, we deemed our limited time in the C4 countries would be better spent elsewhere. We left El Salvador, having enjoyed it, but having been the least enamoured that we had been with any country so far. The people were friendly and there were some cool things, but the beaches were not great unless you were a surfer, the towns lacked the colonial architecture that made other places so iconic, and there was little to no superb ruins or history. All in, it was possibly just too small and largely underdeveloped to compete with the incredible richness and variety of Guatemala, Mexico or even Belize, and it was for this reason that we were happy enough to move on after a week. It is one of the things that I love most about the overland way of travel, that we have the ability to do this whenever we want, staying somewhere we love for as long as we want, and moving on when we do not totally love somewhere.