Overland Diary

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El Salvador ranks as the smallest country in Central America - squeezing is belt to come in about 2km2 smaller than Belize. With Guatemala to its west and Honduras wrapping around its north and east boarders, its possible to skip past this small Massachusetts sized chunk of land as you head south. However, since Honduras has the worlds highest murder rate, most overland travelers choose to explore El Salvador's coastline in order to avoid as much of Honduras as possible. We too decided to use this tactic. Though our time in El Salvador was short (totaling 3 days), it could be summed in two words: beaches and borders.

Crossing the Guatemala-El Salvador border at La Hachadura, we had our first encounter with the infamous Central American border helpers. They stand around the borders looking for anyone who makes even the smallest face gesture that suggests you are new to the process. They flag you down, show you where to park and politely follow you around as you deal with the numerous officials and windows in hopes that you might give them a few bucks for the useful information they share along the way. It is completely unnecessary to use them if you do your research ahead of time (we used a digital copy of the book: Don't Go There. It's Not Safe. You'll Die. OVERLANDING Mexico & Central America). However, this was our first border crossing with these kind souls, and we must have not been as insistent as we should have. Our border helper stayed with us despite repeating that he didn't need him. He quietly pointed the way a few times and cut in line where he knew he could and eventually saved us about 20 minutes of our time. Happy with his service, we tipped him about $7 and asked him if he knew about the conditions at the El Amatillo border crossing in Honduras. He told us his cousin, Ronnie Garcia (remember this name for later), worked down there and would help us out. We jotted down the name, said our goodbyes, and headed to the coast.

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Our first stop was in El Zonte. We took the paved coastal highway that weaves its way in and out along the base of a mountain. El Zonte is not nearly as popular (and in turn crowded) as it's neighbor La Libertad. It a quiet, surfing community with a few pupusa stands scattered between a variety of minimalistic hostels crowded around the end of the road that leads from the highway to the beach (pupusa's are these delisouly stuffed corn cakes). We stayed at the biggest establishment there - Horizonte Surf Resort: cheap private room with AC ($30), two pools, surf lessons, and a variety of on site pets: dogs, parrots, and a large, lazy Iguana. 

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From El Zonte, we headed to El Cuco. In need of some adventure, we decided to follow the barely visible, light gray road that pops up in Google Maps if you zoom in close enough: Punta Mango Road. We went south on the road just after of El Transito towards Playa El Espino and then cut east on the dirt road marked with a sign for Jucuaran. What a great decision! The road was ours, and the only thing we shared it with were the cows and occasional farmer along the way. It was a challenging road, requiring the occasional push from Katie during the steeper sections, but not impossible. About halfway through, the road bordered the edge of a cliff with spanning views of the untouched coves below. From there, small sprouts of road popped up and guided us to small communities that seem to live timelessly in their protected beaches. Surf camps started to appear along with the occasional high end hotel that blocked our view with their high walls. 

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We reached El Cuco and found a place to stay only minutes before the sky split and released a dangerously large amount of water and electricity. We made the best of it by sipping on some cold beer and marveling in the lightshow slowly moving its way along the ocean. It wasn't too long before the sky closed its doors, giving us an opportunity to walk around the city. Like many beach towns, this was a weekend hotspot. The beach was lined with well designed, large bars and restaurants, all with their lights on dim and the chairs stacked on the tables… it was a tuesday, and we seemed to be the only tourists there. 

The next morning, we woke up early and made our way to the Honduras border. Using our Scala Rider headsets, we reviewed the procedures carefully (this trip would be completely different if we were not able to communicate with each other during the long drives). We knew the cost, the buildings and the paperwork needed. We stopped for gas a few kilometers before the border; after the horror stories of frequent police stops and robberies in Honduras, we didn't want to have to stop during the two hour drive along the Panamericana to the Nicaragua border. Low and behold, Ronnie Garcia found us at the gas station. This random yet somewhat planned encounter made both of our inner voices scream nervous profanities. It wasn't just Ronnie who wanted to take our documents (for "safekeeping"), it was Ronnie, his cousin and some random guy driving their car. We were outnumbered and tried to come up with a plan to not be out smarted. First, we only gave them a copy of our El Salvador import paperwork (though they insisted we give them the original), then we told them that we had tried to take out cash but the bank had suspended our card for suspicious usage. The next two hours, Gianmarco and the "cousin" ran around the different offices getting stamps, copies, signatures and more while Katie and Ronnie watched over the bike (he was actually a very nice and interesting person). Towards the end of the process, an official approached Gianmarco and confirmed his suspicions that the "cousin" had charged $5 more that the actual cost of the TIP and established the fact that there shouldn't be anymore charges for the import process. Within 10 minutes of that conversation, Ronnie tells us that there are 3 more steps left: fumigation, bike inspection, and paperwork review. And of course, all these steps cost $15 each, but for a small bribe of an additional $5 to each of those "officials", we can skip right past them. Leaving no time to argue, he jumped in the car, drove around some unmarked buildings (pointing at them along the way), and parked his car about 1km outside of the border. Needless to say, we didn't give him the $60 that he claimed he owed to the officials for the 3 steps we skipped. We politely told him that we knew the border process, that we were not going to pay for those fabricated steps, and that we would pay him for his service and nothing else. It was a tense moment with the 3 helpers angrily communicating amongst themselves while we puffed our shoulders trying to look as confident as possible. They finally left with their $30 payout (way too much for border helper) and we left with two contradicting emotions: happy that we made it out of that situation safely and sad that we had fallen under the border helpers scam. As for Honduras, we must have been lucky. We passed only 3 police checkpoints during the 130km stretch of road (compared to the 20 that we had read about), and not one of them even stopped to talk to us.  

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