Honduras – San Pedro Sula

I was in San Pedro Sula for a couple of hours three years ago on my way to Utila and did not think much of this place. The Lonely Planet guide did not present it in a very appealing light and the main bus station, basically a terminal within a mall, did nothing to help. With a reputation for being one the most crime-ridden city on the planet, it’s understandable that you’d aim at spending the least amount of time here. On this occasion though I could not in and out, I had to spend a night here to meet my cousin.

The view from the Coca-Cola sign in San Pedro Sula

IMG_20160809_142138The bus ride Copàn Ruinas went without a hitch, though I would care to mention a close call full frontal collision with and oncoming bus which scared the shit out of me (and the driver). On entering the city, I noticed a very large Coca-Cola sign up on the hill (San Pedro Sula’s counterpart to he large Hollywood sign in Los Angeles I guess). Having the whole afternoon to spare, I got a set of directions from the hostel’s owner and set out to reach it. The heat was brutal and it took longer that expected. Thankfully, always there to make a buck, the Hondurans had set up a stand serving coconut water, oranges and sugary soft drinks of the more artificial kind. Down from there and back in the city, the heat had receded a bit due to the clouds. I made a quick stop in the central plaza, which sported an ugly cathedral but a nice park with a concert going on and lots of activity around. Back at hostel (a gorgeous property, once an architect’s home), I went into my usual routine of writing on my computer, but I got interrupted for a while by Larry, the head of American group here on mission to rebuild the roof of a local church and a very kind man. Not that I’m into arguing with religious people, but that 12 000$ that went into renovating that church would have been much better invested into providing sanitation and drinking water for a small village or equipment and supplies to a local health clinic.

Otherwise, guess what. San Pedro’s not that bad…

San Pedro Sula main plaza

Honduras – Copán Ruinas

Getting out of El Salvador was painless and on schedule, I was on my way to Copán Ruinas, a town in Honduras whose namesake is, as you might have guessed it, the Mayan ruins of Copán. Quickly, the bus filled up with other Hondurans and since it had no roof rack to put luggage on, I had to spend the three hours to La Entrada, the town where I was to switch buses, with both my backpacks on my lap.The second bus ride, same shit. By the end of it, my legs were starting to feel numb. Finally at the ruins, I checked in the most presentable hostel that I could find, dropped my things and had a well deserved beer before heading out to check the town. Copán Ruinas is actually one the prettiest village I’ve encountered in Honduras: it’s got a nice plaza, cobble stoned streets and pretty houses. After a meal, I hung around the main plaza for a while listening to … an open air evangelical mass. Having had enough of it, I came back and opened my computer for a bit of productive time, but the previous days had taken their toll and I was in bed before 22h00, a very rare occurrence in my case.

Copan Ruinas main square

Up early the next morning, I had breakfast while chatting with Kai, a Japanese traveler and before making my way to ruins, did a bit of studying for my tec course. The Copán ruins are a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the grandest cities (others being Tikal in Guatemala and Palenque in Mexico) the Mayan civilization has left us before vanishing mysteriously. The site is immense and extremely well taken care of thanks to a debt write off from the Spanish government towards Honduras. The way I understood it, Honduras owed a bunch of money to Spain, and the latter offered the Honduran government to cancel that debt if they would invest massively into making ruins the site that it deserves to be.

Ruins of Copan

For a good couple of hours, I visited every corner of this immense complex, marveling at the achievements of the civilization that built it. I had seen Mayan ruins before in El Salvador and Mexico, but nothing that came even close to that scale. Archaeologists have done a stellar job at clearing the place and rebuilding many structures stone by stone. It must have been a colossal ordeal, as the grounds had been abandoned for nearly a thousand years when they were rediscovered and must have been overgrown with thick dense forest.

Copan Ruinas streetI was back quite early at the hostel, had another chat with my Japanese acquaintance and worked for the remainder of the night. Up early again after a restful night, I spent the morning studying and got out for my afternoon visit back to the ruins, but this time to a different site: Las Sepulturas, a residential complex where the Copán nobility used to live and not too far from the main complex. Beforehand tough, I completed my postcard duty, had an awesome (but cheap!) meal at a comedor and toured around Copán town before walking to Las Sepulturas. This archeological site was far smaller than Copán, but to my surprise, it was entirely devoid of visitors and people save for a gardener and two soldiers. I toured it for a good hour and then decided to make the way back a bit more interesting.

 

Panorama of Last Sepulturas, click for a larger version

Panorama of Last Sepulturas, click for a larger version

I had obviously reached the site using a paved road, but I knew and had seen that both archaeological complexes where actually by the river (logical) from which the valley, the town and the main ruins got their name. It also seemed that their was a dirt path that followed the river. Easy I thought, so I jumped the fence, and started following the trail. Soon, it dead-ended into the river but not to be let down by this small obstacle, I crossed a barbed wire fence and started making my way through a corn field, hoping that the trail would resume soon. It didn’t, so for a good two hours, I was walking amid crops, forest, high herbs and passing one barbed wire fence after another, trying not to get spotted in the process, because I was clearly trespassing. Eventually, I emerged back into Copán town, thankfully not too scratched from that little hike. I was hoping for a bit of ambiance that night in the hostel, but was let down big time. Oh well, I’ll save my energy for Utila, my next destination and a place that is sure to provide more partying than anyone can handle.

First tough, I had to meet my cousin Philippe in San Pedro Sula. He was arriving late from Canada so the plan was to spend the night there and make our way next morning to La Ceiba, where we would meet another cousin, Simon, and from there take the ferry to Utila for a week or hardcore diving and a reasonable amount of partying … yeah right.

El Salvador – La Palma

This one will be short I promise.

La Palma is a quiet little town known for its murals and artists. Luckily this time, my bus ride there went without a hiccup and fairly late in the afternoon I hoped off the bus. Not having a reservation anywhere, I entered the tourism office and quickly was directed to some cabins in the outskirts. Two employees were kind enough to walk me there and the family that ran the cabins was extra nice and welcoming to me. The little shack that I got for12US$ was extremely rustic, but I really needed no amenities beside a bed an an electrical outlet, which it provided.

Street in La Palma, El Salvador

My things dropped off, I went for a stroll around town, which I managed to circle about twice given how small it was. Having made the promise to my girlfriend that I would send her a postcard, I had forgotten until then so I made it my first mission. I could only find some at a café which were by a local artist but not too evocative of El Salvador. Regardless, that was my only option so it had to do. For supper, I ate some of my last pupusas and walked back to my place but not without a small supply of beers that I bought at a tienda. There, I handed my postcard to the owner of the cabins so he could mail it on Monday, which he gladly accepted. Salvadoreans are definitely the nicest bunch. Once in my cabin, I opened my computer and started writing, but soon got intrigued by the sound of live music playing in town across the river. Still early enough for me to head out again, I went and checked it out but it turned out to be a religious gathering in the local church. I hanged around for a while but quickly got bored and made it back to my cabin to get on with writing. The next day, I was up early (right before the chickens) to catch the bus to the border. I had a long way to go that day.

My thoughts and opinions about El Salvador? It’s a Central American country alright, with all that implies (chaos, pollution, heat, crime, etc.) but it is definitely the road less traveled and its inhabitants are extra nice, authentic, endearing and hard-working. In all the countries I’ve been to in this part of the world, I would rate this place close second behind Nicaragua. As an added bonus, their Spanish is slightly easier to grasp that everywhere else and the food it top notch. No attraction there is as grand as Costa Rica’s parks, Nicaragua’s colonial cities, but the people more than make up for it, making visiting El Salvador a very human experience rather than a sightseeing one.

Posing in La Palma, El Salvador

El Salvador – Santa Ana

Transportation, among other things, is dirt cheap in El Salvador. Santa Ana is a good hour and half away from the capital and the bus ride to get there was only a dollar thirty, and that for was the direct air-conditionned and more comfortable bus. Taking the chicken bus (old american school buses) would have been under a dollar.

Santa Ana's skyline

Santa Ana’s skyline

Salvadorean burger and fries!

Salvadorean burger and fries!

Santa Ana is a pretty medium-sized town where there isn’t much to do except taking a break from it all. However, it’s the gateway to the volcan parks and some other sights. I checked in Hostal Casa Verde, which luckily had a lot of beds available despite advertising itself full on the internet. This hostel, rated the best in El Salvador, lived up to its reputation by providing pretty much everything a back packer needs and then some more. What it lacked though was ambiance, but I was certain the right group of people would spark a nice party during the days to come. Upon arrival, I unloaded my things and headed out to spend the remainder of the afternoon walking around the city. Santa Ana is a beautiful Central American city, with it’s buildings all painted in bright colors, some streets full of hookers and others filled with markets. It has a pretty cathedral that overlooks a very nice plaza (much much nicer than San Salvador’s) where people were enjoying an evening out in their city, Santa Ana felt warm, authentic and friendly. Back to the hostel ater a burger, I mostly kept to myself that night (except for that conversation I had in Spanish with a Japanese man) and did some writing and studying for my upcoming tec course.

Santa Ana's cathedral

Santa Ana’s cathedral

Bright and early the next morning, I had a quick cofee and marched to a bus stop hoping to catch the 7h30 to the volcano park. Owing to my poor abilities at negotiating public transportation, I stood waiting on the wrong corner and when it dawned on me that I was not in the right place, it was too late and I had missed the one bus that could take me there in time for the hike. Extremely frustrated, especially that today was the last day where the weather was clear, I went back to the hostel to think about a plan B. A quick look at the map indicated that the Tazumal ruins, which I had heard of already and which were supposedly El Salvador’s largest, were nearby and of much easier access than the park.

Tazumal

A quick chicken bus ride and I landed in Chalchuapa, which the ruins were nearby. The Tazumal complex was a museum and a single pyramid and within an hour I was out the gate, slightly disappointed. I then proceeded to check out Chalchuapa, which in turn was quite nice. I walked around the lake, had some fried yucca and pork at one of the yuquaterias lining the road to the ruins, took a stroll around the local market, searched a café that was in my guidebook (the best of El Salvador according to them) but no longer existed and spent a bit of time checking out the town’s cemetery. There were some natural spring water pools that I wish I could have checked out, but the sky was turning a menacing grey so I returned to Santa Ana.

Back at the hostel, I had a beer, studied a bit and went out for pupusas. On my way to the pupuseria, I passed right through the prostitutes and caught the attention of a couple of them. On the way back from the pupuseria though, I tried taking a different street back but quickly backtracked when I noticed it was full of drunken men and had no lights. So through the prostitutes again, which this time were a bit more insistent, with one of them (a transvestite) even trying to lure me in by taking a very suggestive position. I wanted to do some more writing that night, but while on the rooftop terrace I met with Francis, a New-Zealander and later on got joined by Dennis, a Canadian expat teaching abroad in Taiwan and we spent what remained of the evening downing Pilsners (the local cerveza) and smoking cigarettes.

Dennis trying to catch some sleep on a busy chicken bus

Dennis trying to catch some sleep on a busy chicken bus

You don’t get to sleep in in El Salvador, the city gets loud very early with the roar of turbo charged chicken buses so I had no trouble waking up before my 6h45 alarm, because again that day I would try to go the volcano park, but this time with Francis and Dennis, my two new buddies. We met two other fellow travelers, Nila, a Belgian girl and Liam, a British guy and this time showed up at the right bus stop and caught the bus to the park. The weather report predicted rain and thunderstorms for the day because of hurricane Earl passing over Honduras, but we had decided to go anyway. The chicken bus ride took two hours, during which we got harassed by an inordinate amount of snack vendors. They climb on, advertise their wares by yelling about what they’re selling while walking to the end of the bus, and jump off when they are done. Ordinarily, that would be fine, but in a full chicken bus with half of the passengers packed back to back in the aisle, it gets annoying fast but hey, everyone’s gotta make a living and no one must ever go hungry on a bus ride. Finally, we were dropped off at the park and had some fruits and coffee while waiting for the guided hikes to start. As it turns out, it was not permitted to go hike by ourselves and had to be escorted by two police officers and two park guides. Fair enough, but the most annoying part was the two hundred Salvadoreans also accompanying us. Well, I’m saying annoying because I like having my alone time in nature and that much people will scare any chances of getting of the wildlife but in reality, I’m quite happy that so many locals were actually here for the same reason as us. The whole country was on national vacations for the week which explained the amount of people but beyond that, it was great to see that El Salavador still belonged to the Salvadoreans. The prices for the hikes were very fair and the installations were geared towards the locals, somewhat of a rarity in Central America, where popular destinations tend to charge prices that are way out of reach of the locals.

On top of volcano Izalco

On top of volcano Izalco

The group split in two, with the majority of the people opting for the hike to the Santa Ana volcano and the rest to Izalco. I asked which of the two was the most proper looking volcano and picked Izalco, which was also a much harder hike, but still we must have been a good fifty persons doing it. We were warned by the guides that should there be rain we would abort the expedition but luckily we made it to the top with the weather still on our side. Francis and I, having arrived a solid twenty minutes before the bulk of the people, had enough time to circle the crater and go inside. While the view was clouded over, it was still cool to walk around this barren landscape of black volcanic stones. There were even hot air vents here and there and on occasions I picked up the smell of sulfur. It rained for a bit on the way down but again, the two gringos soon separated from the pack and at the bottom of the volcano, we decided to push on without police escort. The way back up to the park entrance was a strenuous 1300 steps, which I managed to climb up quite fast, getting a very good work out in the process.. The rest of our traveler group had gone on the other hike so Francis and I had some warm soup, a much welcomed meal as we were both wet and cold and once they arrived, we hoped back on the bus to Santa Ana town.

On top of volcano Izalco

On top of volcano Izalco, overlooking the creater

Having bonded a bit during the day, we had a couple beers at the hostel and later, joined by others, went as a group to Café Tejas, a nice restaurant/café/bar combo run by a Canadian expat girl and her Salvadorean husband. Dennis, back at the hostel had broken the ice by launching a round table discussion on who, as an adult, had ever shit their pants and it went on from there. We had food and several (with emphasis on word « several ») beers and got stupid drunk for some, especially Jorge, who having been put out of commission for a week due to Dengue, was catching up on all the beers that he had missed during his illness. At the end of the night, we managed to pack the 9 of us into the owner’s SUV for a joyous ride back to Casa Verde and then we all went to bed, not causing too much trouble. Dennis, on the other hand, had to leave at three (for Utila) so he skipped sleep.

The next morning, Nila remarked that it’s always when you have to catch a bus the next morning that you get drunk the night before and to that I completely agree with her. In my case though, I was feeling tired but otherwise fine. After a couple of buses, I arrived in La Palma, a quiet little town along the border with Honduras and the last place I wanted to check out before bidding farewell to El Salvador.

(Note : this long post covers just about three days of traveling. It seems I always start my writing with good intentions of being short and concise but very quickly I get into details and end up writing way too much content. If you find it tedious, please accept my apologies but also bear in mind that I’m writing for myself in the first place.)

El Salvador – San Salvador

I had been in Central America before, but having spent too much time in Utila, I had to sacrifice some destinations. Sadly, little El Salvador, too much out of the way and with little (obvious) appeal, was booted off the list first. Only for a time though, because I knew I would be back and when I did, I would make El Salvador a priority.

So a couple years later, here I was, in the airport with a plane ticket to San Salvador. In itself, it was not what motivated me to come back to Central America (a tec diving course in Utila is what did), but I had nonetheless made it my first destination. Normally, I would start the story on arrival at a new country but this time, its different. When checking in for my flight, the machine had asked me if I wanted to be on the “flexible passengers list” to which I had replied yes and named a price of 300$USD. That list is basically those passengers that are willing to give up their seats and for what price if the flight gets overbooked. So guess what, my flight was indeed overbooked, but when I showed up at the counter to offer my spot, the Delta employee told me they were offering a 1000$USD credit with the company if I wanted to give up my seat and take the next flight, to which I happily replied : “Of course”. The next flight was only four hours away and my original layover being a good 10 hours in Atlanta, waiting there or here in Montreal made no difference whatsoever to me. The 1000$USD however, will be put to good use, but I’ll let my girlfriend figure that one out.

So onto San Salvador, obviously the capital of El Salvador to which I arrived very late in the evening as it was pouring outside. On the taxi ride to hostel, I dusted off my Spanish discussing with the taxi driver and getting travel advice, which he happily provided. El Salvador, he told me, had everything one could hope for as a travel destination even though it is small. He was aware of the reputation his country had for being one the most dangerous places on the continent, but he assured me those days were over and things had gotten a lot safer lately. Anyway, this all had gotten me very excited and I went to bed feeling quite glad to be there and eager to get out and explore the city for the coming days.

San Salvador's central market

San Salvador’s central market

San Salvador's cathedralFirst morning, I was up somewhat late because of a pretty hefty sleep debt that I had to repay and the extremely powerful snoring of one of my roommates. So after a quick coffee, I set out and walked around for the better part of the day, only coming back when the sun was starting to set. During those couple of hours, I walked through a shopping mall (to see what the Salvadoreans are up to on a Saturday), the central market, checked out the main cathedral, encountered a very loud (with explosives the likes of which I had not seen since my time in the army) protest commemorating the murder of some university students by a repressive government in the 70s, attempted to visit the university but got turned back by guards and finally made my way back home walking through the back streets. The evening was spent having drinks and discussing politics (Brexit, Brexit and Brexit), travels and such with Felix, a German traveler passing through the country on his way from Guatemala to Nicaragua. El Salvador is definitely not on most’s people’s list.

Protest in San Salvador

Protest in San Salvador

Sorry for jumping subjects, but while taking a break I just had a 20 minute conversation with a Japanese man in … Spanish. Evidently, his English was not up to task so we defaulted to that language as for having spent a year here working in economic development, he was quite proficient in it, slightly more so than me. I would never have thought of that happening in my lifetime :)

So back to San Salvador. Just like any other Central American capital and even more so in some cases, it’s polluted, chaotic, loud and ugly. It has been invaded by those fast food chains that are so familiar to us to a point where they occupy prime land, are multiple stories high in pristine buildings all fenced off and guarded by armed security guards, making them the nicest infrastructure in an otherwise run down city. Speaking of security guards, they’re everywhere, standing in front of most commercial or official buildings with shotguns and pistols at the ready. As for the fast food joints, evidently, Salvadoreans, given how overweight they tend to be, enjoy their presence a lot. I entered a McDonald’s to see what was up on the menu and could not help but noticed how expensive it was, even more so than in Canada. It’s somewhat of a pity because Salvadorean cuisine appears to be much more rich and varied than it’s regional counterparts. The city is dotted with small kiosks and comedores offering a large variety of snacks and plates, only outnumbered by pupuserias, small stands serving pupusas, a national dish comprising of small tortillas filled with anything from black beans to cheese, tomato sauce and coleslaw. Plus, a single dollar will buy enough for a proper meal.

San Salvador stood out of the other national capitals of the region for its inhabitants were much more friendly and it was entirely devoid of gringos. As a matter of fact, I did not see any on my walk the first day save for two that were having a beer on a pricey terrace in the center. It did not feel dangerous and I could be out at night without fearing too much for my life. Not that I really wanted to party and come late (altough no occasion presented itself), but it’s nice to be able to go out at sundown for some pupusas.

The second day I had to wake up extra early to go diving with El Salvador Divers. Evidently, that drink with my German buddy extended itself to some whisky which I had brought from Canada so I went to bed late and was welcomed with, again, the earth-shaking snoring of my bunk mate. In total, I must have accumulated four hours of sleep and by pure luck I opened my eyes in time for my pick-up to go diving, as I had put my earphones on to use them as earplugs and had overslept my alarm. Since it was the rainy season here, there is no diving in the pacific as coastline waters are clouded with runoffs for the whole summer. Instead, we went to lake Ilopango, an ancient volcanic crater. At 80 square kilometers, it must have been quite an eruption and in fact, geologists do think so as well (it’s downfall has been found in the ice records). Nowadays though, it’s a somewhat quiet volcanic lake surrounded by villas. The top layers of the water were quite opaque because of recent raining but the visibility at the bottom was excellent. Both dives were made along a black volcanic rock cliff, which made for spectacular and unusual environment for me. Back at the hostel, I caught up on my sleep with a huge nap and woke up just in time to go to the Modern art museum. I hurried there but on showing up at the gate, I was told by the (armed) security guard that it was exceptionally closed for fumigation. Disappointed, I walked off and soon encountered huge traffic, which was inordinate I thought for a Sunday night. I traced it back to its source and came upon la feria Consuma, a festival it seems devoted to shopping. For a 1.50$, I bought my way inside a interesting piece of local life and did some people watching for some time before I headed home to study for my tec course.

El TuncoI had wanted to spend only two days in San Salvador but feeling there was a bit more to explore, I extended my stay by one night and took off early to get to El Tunco, a famous surfing beach some 40 kilometers away on the coast. Getting there took slightly longer than expected as I did not make the bus connection that I was supposed to and ended up at the wrong terminal, but eventually, I found the right bus and an hour later was dropped of at the beach. Not that I had some expectations about the place, but I was left somewhat dissapointed as all there was to it was hotels and restaurants and everything appeared to be geared towards surfing. The beach, or lack thereof, was a small stripe of rocks about a meter wide. I have to admit though, it must have been quite the spot as the waves where immense and fairly close to the coast. I had taken my bathing suit with me just in case I had wanted to rent a board, but this place was way out of my league.

La Libertad

La Libertad

Having had enough of El Tunco, I caught a bus back to La Libertad, a port town through which I had passed on my way to my first destination. My Lonely Planet guide (from 2010) described the town as sketchy but a lot must have changed in the recent past as I would describe it as quite the opposite. It was lively: the seafront was packed with restaurants and a huge wharf featuring a bustling fish market, some ceviche stands and fishermen working on their boats after a day out at sea. Passed the restaurants, there was a nice paved walk (by Salvadorean standards) which ended at another surfing beach, where I sat for a good hour having a beer and watching some pretty talented surfers negotiating breaks several meters high. I would have stayed longer, but buses in El Salvador don’t run late so I caught the 17h30 back to the capital, had some pupusas and spent the rest of the evening on my computer.

The day after, I checked out, went back to the art museum for a quick visit; took a bus; stopped at the right place to catch another bus that would take me to the terminal; waited for a while without seeing that bus; decided to walk to the terminal; while walking, finally saw the bus but omitted to ask where it was going (the same bus routes do not necessarily take you to the same place); ended up at the opposite end of the town. Normally, I would have hoped off before, but since I was carrying all my belongings, I did not want to be left in a random neighborhood and having to walk to find my way. Some ladies told me to wait until we would come across a proper bus stop so I could catch the right bus going in the opposite direction. After an hour lost circling around town, I finally arrived at the terminal where I could catch transportation to Santa Ana, my next destination. Time wasted in transportation is part of traveling and even though I’ve been at it for quite some time now, I don’t seem to get better at negotiating my way around public transport.

Pimped up bus!

Pimped up bus!