El Salvador and Honduras are the two countries I was most nervous about to start this trip. I even considered not going through El Salvador – as it and Belize are the two countries you don’t have to drive through to get to Panama. A few travelers even cautioned against it. But in each case it was someone who had a second-hand story about some gang violence horror. No one who’d actually been there recently had anything bad to say, nor did I hear of any crimes against tourists.
So I posted in the Pan-American Traveler forum asking for the perfect two weeks in El Salvador. I got such a flood of replies and interesting-looking things to do – I decided at that point I wouldn’t skip El Salvador. There’s even a trending hashtag for it. #DONTSKIPELSALVADOR
As I suspected might happen, I was rewarded with an amazing 2 weeks, a sense of getting back into adventure travel mode a little – and some of the friendliest people I’ve met on my trip.
Luckily the End of All Roads guys felt the same way. So we crossed over the border together on Saturday of Semana Santa – which turned out to be a good call – as it was about as sleepy of a border as I’ve seen. This despite advice that it would be completely jammed from a fellow traveler, who coincidentally was also one of people who had never been there but said not to go to El Salvador. Lesson: listen to locals and fellow travelers. But get multiple confirmations before you take anything as gospel.
This was my first time riding with the crew – and boy were they thrilled to have a support vehicle! They put at least two small items in my car. I took delight in teasing them about my comfy AC, and 15 minutes packing time – while they were basically riding in 95 degree humid heat with winter coats and pants, and packing is a half-day process for them.
I think we determined after a while that things work better with them in front. With me in front I’d drive right over a big pothole – straddling it, and watch them have to take quick evasive action. Well I guess they figured out not to drive centered behind me pretty quick. At one point the car in front of me swerved right in front of me and hit his brakes to avoid a pothole, so I had to slam on my breaks. I looked over and there’s Dan at my driver window – choosing to swerve beside me rather than hit his brakes and risk some kind of skis=d. Oh hi Dan – nice to see you. Of course behind them I had to worry about my worst nightmare – accidentally hitting one of them somehow. I stayed way back except for every now and then when I’d space out and be on top of them.
El Tunco is a party beach town that came up more often than any other place when discussion El Salvador. Also it wasn’t too far from the border, so we decided to head there and see what it was like.
When we got there I dropped off my hitchhikers. I met these guys at the border – from left to right they’re from Israel and Bulgaria.
The guy from Bulgaria really talked up his country and made me want to go there to check it out some time. It’s always a good sign imo when people are proud to sell you on a trip to their country. I left Kansas City – but I love the town and am always glad to talk up the great food and things do do there. I’ve met some travelers who literally describe their hometown as a shithole (For example: Geel, Belgium – can anyone confirm?). That would be a depressing way to think imo, but then again I didn’t grow up in a place I would consider a shithole. If I grew up in St. Louis I might feel different. Ha! #UPTOP
It was also really interesting hearing their experience trying to live on as close to $0 per day as they can. They jump in the backs of trucks for free rides whenever they can. I try to connect with locals whenever possible – but traveling like this, they’re certainly seeing more of the way real Central Americans live than I am.
Although there is a downside – like a 2-hour ride with 20 people crammed into the back of a small pickup and a piss drunk driver yelling at everyone. When I told them the place we found was $35 a night (cruising in w/o a reservation on Saturday of Semana Santa – the busiest night of the year next to NYE, lol), they reacted the way I’d react to $300/night. That’s probably their budget for the week. They eventually found some abandoned house on the beach to sleep in. Pretty cool. I’m not gonna lie, I envy them a little. But not quite enough to take a 2-hour standing-room only truckbed ride with a drunk driver.
That night the town was absolutely packed for the climax of Semana Santa. It was so crowded walking down the street was difficult, and seemed to get hotter and hotter just from the crush of humanity. As the night wore on the scene became less and less gringos and more and more young Salvadorans looking to hit the clubs. We hit a few places then crashed somewhat early. Of course with all the noise no one really slept too well until the wee hours.
The next night I found a place – Mamaguaya – with a big line and the glorious cooking scene out front. Of course I had to order some papusas.
Watching really good papusas being made – you really get a sense of the care and precision that goes into each step.
Dan and the guys found 3 rooms at La Guitarra – my favorite place to stay in El Tunco. I wound up across the street at a surfer hostel. I swear I said hi to a half dozen of them and didn’t get one reply back. It’s like non-surfers speak at some different frequency they can’t hear. Maybe I just found the super aloof surfer hangout.
But from my travels there does seem to be a healthy contingent of surfers with a “too cool for school” attitude. We were talking to one guy in Baja who when his other surfer bro left – just got up and said “Im gonna go read a book” like mid-sentence. I guess we weren’t interesting enough. Cool story bro! Lol. And I was with Mike and Kelley – who also surf. We just thought it was funny. Whereas divers, motorcycle riders and other groups seemed a little nerdier and way more welcoming and engaging for some reason – even the windsurfers were mostly just nerds about it. Maybe because surfing is so much harder. But you’d think with surfing being such a zen sport people would be a little less aloof or something.
Ruta de las Flores
Next to El Tunco – the Ruta de las Flores probably came up the most often as a must-see in El Salvador. Basically it’s a procession of colonial towns in a cloud forest, surrounded by a few national parks. I will say El Salvador does a good job of promoting and clearly labeling tourist routes like this. Honduras and Guatemala could learn a few lessons.
I pulled over at a designated viewpoint with a platform (something else lacking in most Central American countries) and got my first taste of the local cicadas. I’m used to midwestern cicadas that make a rhythmic pulsing sound – which I actually get pretty nostalgic about. These guys sound more like a constant train whistle to me. I don’t think I could ever get nostalgic about that sound even if I grew up here.
The first town I checked out was Juayua – but I couldn’t figure out where to park so I moved on. However I made it back later with a tour, so there will be pics further down.
The next town I stopped was Ataco – a very nice little town and seemingly the one with most touristy stuff (restaurants, shops) of the route.
Tacuba and Parque Nacional Impossible
I stayed one night in Ataco and decided to take a fun-looking dirt road to a town called Tacuba – which is the jumping off point for treks into Parque Nacional Imposible (named for some kind of impossible to cross foot/cable bridge that used to be there – I think).
The ride out to Tacuba was pretty dicey. As always google maps happily sent me on my way – but I wouldn’t want to be in a normal car. Also I got a ton of stares from the local kids. I wave and usually they wave back once their slack-jawed surprise at seeing a big red beard gringo in a weird marshmallow/spaceship-looking car coming down their barely-traveled road wears off.
It’s great having friends come visit. But it’s also nice getting back to my choose-the-crookedest-road-you-can-find adventure. This is the best of my trip.
About the only accommodations in town seem to be a very friendly, lovely hostel called Mama’s y Papa’s y Manolo’s. Manolo is their son – a famous local guide who appears in my guide book and all over the internet. However I came to find out he’s in Switzerland promoting the family coffee business or something. Must be nice!
Mama and Papa welcomed me in. I immediately knew I’d stay a couple nights and go hiking in the park the next day.
The pleasant mountain town of Tacuba is sleepy (except when school lets out) and walkable in 30 minutes or so. Only a few little restaurants but the food was quite tasty. The only real tourist highlight is a ruined old church.
Chilling out in the hammock at Mama y Papas.
If you listen closely to the video above, you can hear a couple individuals start off with slow clicks, which get faster and faster until they merge into a train whistle that lasts about 15 seconds per individual. When they’re all going at the same time it sounds like some weird 50s spaceship or Star Trek sonic ray that would have Kirk holding his ears in scenery-chewing agony.
At one point I was hanging out in the hammock – listening to chickens, cicadas, car horns, bike horns, barking dogs, construction, other birds, car stereos blasting reggaeton – all no problem whatsoever – just a cacophony of soothing random sounds. But there was a crying baby about a block away that just killed me. Can anyone tune out a crying baby? Damn genetics.
The thing to do from Tacuba is arrange hikes into Parque Nacional Imposible. This is my slightly off-kilter but entertaining guide William.
At one point William asked me if I wanted to go for an rappelling adventure. Ok, sure. He said this is the first time he’s done this. Hmmmm.
Part 2 of the adventure involved rappelling straight down off an overhanging ledge. The only possible way back up was to somehow climb straight up the rope with nothing to put your feet against. I lacked confidence that William could pull my dead weight up out of that thing, so I passed and William went down instead.
Getting William, who knows how to climb up a rappelling rope, back up was enough of a struggle that I felt pretty good about my decision to pass. To compound the fun – the rope decided to run right through a giant hill of tiny stinging ants. So I had to make sure not to drop William, while getting stung and furiously trying to scrape ants off the rope.
After Tacuba – I headed back to El Tunco – for a surprise repeat guest appearance from – Sophie! She had missed her flight to Costa Rica and decided to head to El Tunco instead. I loved El Tunco and nothing in El Salvador is more than a few hours away. So I headed back.
El Tunco redux
I arrived back in El Tunco and had a beer while waiting for Sophie to materialize.
We had some beers at La Guitarra and watched a bunch of local surfers tackle the tricky (IE – not for beginners) break.
The next day Sophie and I drove up to Cerro Verde National Park for some hiking. I decided to take a crooked mountain road that the clerk at La Guitarra had warned me against the first time I was in town. She had made it clear the road wasnt dangerous because of bandits – but because I might drive off the side or something. Well by now I’d been in El Salvador long enough to know the roads are generally pretty good. Any road that people can drive on – my car should easily handle.
The road turned out to be about the nicest perfectly paved road you could see – with very robust guardrails everywhere. Apparently there’s a saying in El Salvador: “The people can eat pavement” which refers to the amazing condition of so many of the roads (the road to Tacuba not withstanding).
Maybe it was dangerous when the lady I got advice from last took it. Or maybe she’s just deathly afraid of heights or something. Also the drive was just gorgeous. Anyway the point is – just like advice from travelers – advice from locals isn’t always rock solid. There’s still room to use your own judgment.
We got there too late for the Santa Ana volcano hike, so we took a nice loop hike with a local guide.
Later in the parking lot 3 different groups of people came up to me to ask about my car and drive. Some of them had either lived in California or had relatives who did. They were all universally warm and welcoming and literally thanked us for visiting their country.
On the drive back we came across a wreck that had stopped traffic in both directions. Before we saw the cause of the backup, Sophie got a little spooked and started to hide her iPhone. Yes Sophie – this is the mandatory stop where they steal everyone’s iPhone. Although to be fair if I hadn’t already driven through that area I’d have been a lot more skittish. And now that I think about it – I did previously see a guy on the side of the road in that area with an Uzi slung over his shoulder. He was dressed pretty nice, older guy, but seemed to be intently looking for a certain car. Glad I wasn’t it. Sorry I didn’t get picture.
Since we didn’t have time to go on the Santa Ana hike, or check out a local waterfall and Ruta de las Flores town – Juayua – when we got back to El Tunco, Sophie went into the only local tour guide shop – Tunco Life – to ask about a Santa Ana hike. Amazingly they had a trip planned for the next day which did exactly those three things. Crazy! I can’t say enough good things about Tunco Life and our guide (and owner of the company I think) Josue. We had a blast and I think he has a big future leading tours out of El Tunco.
First we went to Juayua, the town I didn’t stop at my first time through, which has a bustling local market
Looking at this absolutely lovely town square I had one of my recurring moments of rage at Trump’s “shithole countries” comment. Apparently these pleasant locals going about their day in such a beautiful place never got the word that they live in a shithole. It’s one thing for some small-minded person from the US to hold those kinds of warped prejudices about a place they’ve never seen. But it’s entirely another for our president to affirm and amplify those ideas. DONALD ERES UN PENDEJO
Then we went to the local waterfall. Which was nice. It’s weird because I love nature so much, but I seem to get less jazzed about waterfalls than the average person. Same goes for hot springs. I think it might be because I like to travel minimally. And once I have to think about swimming that adds all kinds of concerns – suit, towel, sunscreen?, where do I change? Getting wet is complicated. Yes I realize how silly that sounds.
Then we went back to Cerro Verde – to climb Santa Ana this time – much to Sophie’s delight.
The next day I hung around El Tunco hungover and had an aggressively useless day. Then after that I said goodbye to Sophie and headed out to Perquin in the NE corner of El Salvador. I wanted to see the rest of El Salvador before meeting up with my friends in Honduras.
On the way I FINALLY ate at a Pollo Campero. It was quite tasty. I’d put the chicken sandwich up there with Wendy’s Spicy Chicken and Chik Fil A.
I was about 10 minutes from my hotel in when I got pulled over by the cops for the first time this trip. I thought they might get me for speeding since the speed limit around here is something ridiculous like 40kph – which no one adheres to except giant trucks going uphill.
But no they just wanted to ask me a bunch of questions. Possibly because it was getting close to 5pm and gringos driving around after dark is a bad idea. They did ask if I was armed. Um no, I’ll leave that to you guys standing there with your AR-15s or M16s or w/e (don’t @ me gun nuts) strapped across your chest. I told them about my trip, and in the end they were all smiles and sent me on my way. Just curious I guess.
I should add that I’ve always had a good way with cops for some reason – maybe my non-threatening teddy bear demeanor. If I’d had my buddy Ande in the car however, we’d both be swiss cheese right now.
So of course I had to post the above on Facebook because among other reasons, it’s theoretically possible there might be a few girls out there I want to impress with my dangerous adventure. Which prompted my Mom to reply, first comment:
Yeah that ought to do it. Good luck with that grandkid that you’ve probably given up on anyway. Also I want to know who taught my Mom emojis.
LOVE YOU MOM!
I try to imagine the great 19/20th century explorers like Earnest Shackleton in the age of social media. Have fun on your little adventure to the South Pole son, but BE SAFE! His men would mutiny.
So after my cop adventure I had a tasty comfort meal of sphagetti bolognese at my hotel – a mostly empty grand hillside resort that could hold a ton more people.
The next day I headed to one of my two intended destinations. The war museum in Perquin – documenting the civil war that raged here from 1979 to 1992. Warning – some of this stuff is graphic. As always the US at least plays a supporting bad guy role here in supplying the genocidal government with arms and money and even officers to run the war. Gotta stop those communists! Of course the rebels were mostly just left-leaning and communism was way down their list. But a few actual communists showed up and then the US had to get involved.
My second destination of the day was really tough – El Mozote the site of the worst massacre of the war. The US-backed army tortured, raped and murdered over 800 men, women and children. One woman in the entire village survived – by hiding in a tree for 5 days as she watched all the horror unfold. Of course justice was weak and hard to come by – with pressure from the US to minimize the massacre. Reagan called initial reports of the massacre a “gross exaggeration”.
Once the memorial was established, the sole survivor led tours of the site until she died in 2005. Other women have continued her tradition. I spoke to one of them in my broken Spanish for a while. Similar to Vietnam, I felt obligated to contribute much heavier than I normally would.
After El Mozote – I headed across El Salvador along the northern highway to La Palma – a gorgeous scenic drive that I highly recommend. I had basically circumnavigated El Pulgracito de America in two days – and could easily have done it in one.
La Palma turned out to be a fairly nice town – which is always a pleasant surprise for a border town.
I was a little paranoid about trying to cross the border with a very dirty car. I’ve heard they might turn you around and make you wash it – which is complicated because you’ve already checked out of the previous country. So do you wind up like Tom Hanks in Terminal?
Of course about 30 seconds after my car wash the skies just opened up. Dammit – $3 car wash wasted! Not really – as the car was still much cleaner than it would be.
Get the HAIL out of here!
I asked them if hail as common. It is not.
The next day I headed to Honduras – my first solo border crossing.