May 1-6, 2016
We stayed three nights with Pepe and his parents, who were sweet enough to bring the rest of our stuff from the city. He also took us down the other side of the mountains to some of the local beaches and a taste of the insane heat we had to look forward to once we left his place.
We really fell in love with his little village, Comasagua. The Cordillera is one of those special places on Earth.
May 3, 2016
We had a fantastic road down to the coast, although it would have been nice to have the sweet views we’d gotten from the car the other day. Here is a little video for you to see the roads we live for on this trip. This is the payoff for all the sweat and pain.
We broke through the clouds near the bottom of our descent, but that just meant we’d broken into where the clouds were dispatching their load in prodigious quantities and we were promptly soaked. We didn’t really care though because by this point we were low enough to feel the heat of the coast and it felt good. It was also our first good drenching of the trip and I’m happy to say that our wet weather gear held up admirably. In fact, we’d been very lucky with weather on this ride. The few fully rainy days have conveniently coincided with days off and the only other time I can remember riding more than a few minutes in rain was way back in Washington a year and a half back. The key piece of equipment was a mudguard Brandy had fabricated from an old bike tube to stretch from my water bottle cage to just above the fork. My old mudguards had kept the water out of my face, but failed to protect my water bottle, so every time we rode through any bit of moisture, the mouth of my bottle would be caked in road crud. The rainy season was beginning and we’d see plenty showers over the next few months. Luckily the rain usually comes in the hot, hot afternoon, and often only in localized deluges, so most days were still good riding days.
After losing something like 4,200 feet (1,300 m), we were back on the coast, riding there for the first time since Oaxaca. After waiting out the rest of the downpour in a cafe in Tunco, we got out onto the Litoral (coast road) that we would follow through the rest of the country, bathing in the kind of sweltering heat we hadn’t felt yet on this trip. The coast road was flat, straight and conveniently just out of sight of the actual coast, so really rather dull. At least there was generally a nice wide shoulder and a surprising amount of canopy shade for a highway. In fact, I was amazed by the quantities of monstrous trees all over El Salvador. Even the trees that didn’t have elephant-sized trunks had high, sprawling canopies.
We stopped at a delicious family pupusa restaurant on the edge of San Luis Talpa and they let us set up our hammocks in their covered dining room and even gave us breakfast in the morning. Unfortunately their ridiculous dogs kept us up barking all night long. I think that, despite spending all evening hanging out and petting them, they were stupid enough to have forgotten who we were and were actually barking at us, but cowardly from around the corner of the house.
May 4, 2016
The heat finally succeeded where all else has failed with respect to getting us out of bed EARLY to get in some miles before it got too bad.
Our outdated map didn’t show it, but the Carretera Litoral is split into two parallel roads for much of the length – the highway and the old road. We started off on the vieja (old road) but it was much more hilly than we’d been hoping, so after scoring some pupusas at a roadside stand we took a pretty downhill connecting road to the highway. I was concerned that it would be a massive divided expressway with no shade and tons of traffic like the piece of junk we’d been on before climbing the Cordillera Balsa, but it turned out to be a beautiful two-lane highway with massive, well-paved shoulders with tons of beautiful huge trees creating canopy tunnels and lots of shade. There was a lot of traffic, but with the shoulders’ it wasn’t much of a problem.
We came across a section of little mango stands. They were each piled with these big red mangos. I wanted to try them, but they were still too expensive so I got some other ones that were 3 for $2.50 or $0.75 each… Umm, ok, I’ll take two then? There were something like twenty stands in a row and by the time we got to the last stand I had to get one of the big reds. Brandy continued on to the gas station just ahead because she needed to get into the A/C ASAP. I’d chosen the right stand because the guys were super friendly and the price was the cheapest I’d seen yet, two for a buck. We talked about the different mango varieties for a while because I’d been noticing several new ones in El Salvador. I bought a couple of the reds and the guy gave me another small one (sud variety) for free so I could try that one as well. When I got to the gas station I saw Brandy standing in the window waiting for me. It was just a tiny convenience store without anywhere to sit and she’d been stuck in there plastered against the chips while I’d been yacking with the mango dudes. A guy selling belts outside told us there was another station several km ahead, but there was one literally within sight just down the road. Unfortunately, the convenience store section wasn’t finished yet, so we were out of luck. The guard suggested we take the connector road up toward town where we’d find a shopping plaza. We rode all the way uphill to the carretera vieja without finding any plaza, but finally encountered two gas stations. The first was another bust as it only had a giant carwash, but the second one FINALLY had a couple puny tables where we could chow a mango and guzzle some cold water.
Not more than a mile down the highway after the junction was yet another gas station so we hadn’t needed to waste our time going all the way up the hill into town after all. It was convenient though because not more than a moment after we’d given each other the WTF look, it started to pour rain. There were huge black clouds right in front of us, so we were afforded the opportunity to give this one a look, thus completing our regional gas station tour! We snagged the single table that was sitting lonely in an expansive floor space that could have accommodated six or seven and settled in for over an hour eating cookies and drinking moka from a vending machine. The rain gave us a chance to finish our game of rummy from the night before and I absolutely crushed Brandy.
When it finally started to lighten up the cloud was still looming in front of us, but we decided to get moving a bit anyway. We had a nice bit of downhill, but it wasn’t long before it started pissing it down again. We were about to pull into an overhang where a bunch of motorcyclists were chilling, but it was down in a ditch and the sky seemed a bit lighter ahead so I suggested we just push through. We were already drenched anyway and the cloud above us wasn’t budging anytime soon. The rain quickly slowed to a drizzle as we moved out from under the cloud and then suddenly the pavement was bone dry as if it hadn’t rained in months.
The church family was wonderful and as seems to be happening a lot here, went way above and beyond by feeding us an excellent dinner. A little neighbor kid was really interested in us and when he found out we liked mangos he kept bringing us fruit from the nearby trees. The family dogs were seriously a couple of dim bulbs, but at least they knew enough not to bark at us all night.
May 5, 2016
The church conveniently has service every day at the insane hour of 5:00 AM, so we didn’t have to worry about not getting up early. It was a very unique service. It was more like a group prayer session where a bunch of old ladies and only one old man kneeled down on the floor with their heads on chairs praying out loud for an hour.
Usulutan is one of the larger cities of the Orient and it was bustling when we arrived looking for breakfast. There were people and buses everywhere and even a guy trying to lead a pig across the road. A car was coming so he tried to rush it and of course the pig told him to shove off and stopped short in the middle of the road. The guy then yanked on the rope, which was tied around the pig’s rear legs, so he started dragging it backwards while the pig squealed angrily.
We have been looking for a replacement for the stripped bolt on Brandy’s front rack with no success, until we came across a hardware store that is actually a bolt and screw store. The kid who worked there spoke pretty decent English, or at least, he knew how to say bolt and nut and some other work-related things, but had a little more trouble when I asked some other questions. I asked the guys at the shop for where would be a good place for breakfast and they suggested Wendy’s. Do people actually think that is a good place for food, or do they just assume gringos eat that crap? Luckily we came across a nicer buffet-style place and didn’t have to compromise our happiness. We got two big plates of eggs, beans, rice, fried plantains and coffees for $5.00.
The highway is very busy with lots of speeding truck traffic, but the surface is in great condition and the huge shoulder was surprisingly nice and clean, so we didn’t have any problems. I started feeling a bit bored with the traveling today, wondering what we’re doing out here. The vegetation was nice and we had some decent views of cloud-shrouded volcanoes set behind vivid green fields, but otherwise the ride was rather uninspiring. It’s been nice to be riding a bit of flat road for a while, but it gets somewhat monotonous, especially with how densely populated the area is. I can’t even guess how many flat fix places we’ve passed. The rain clouds we’ve been enjoying/dodging the past couple days mostly disappeared today and we were treated to much higher temps in the direct sun.
We’ve gotten into a groove of stopping every ten miles or so for a beverage or whatever to cool off a bit. Our next stop was a cute looking roadside restaurant, like are common in Mexico. We hadn’t seen too many of these until we crossed into the Oriente. We picked up a couple refreshing OJs on ice for a buck each and Brandy took a nap in the hammock. Brandy is falling in love with the standard El Salvador hammocks. They are much better than the Mexican ones. Again we had some uneventful riding and I spent much of the time musing on the different vegetation here. There are a lot of jocote bushes along the side of the highway, but nobody picks up the fruits because these jocotes are different and very acidic. There is another fruit that we’ve been seeing a lot coming from a tree. It’s a bright yellow fruit the size and shape of a green grape, but is much tougher and shoots out to the side when you run over it at the appropriate angle. And of course, there are the massive, beautiful shady trees with thick branching trunks and astounding canopy – Conacaste and careto?
We took another stop at a Puma gas station to get some A/C action and a gallon of cold water for a buck. I also had to try out the local garbage and had a whatever Cola and a packet of Bridge wafers, fresa (strawberry) flavor of course. The cola wasn’t as bad as the Guatemalan one, but it still had the aspertamey barfy flavor, despite listing sugar as the sweetener. The wafers were different than the Cremax from Mexico, but were delicious in a different, more classy way. There were some women and little girls selling jocotes in front of the gas station and one of the girls was captivated by us. She came around asking questions when we arrived and then stood staring in the window at us smiling when she wasn’t selling fruit.
I figured we had a few more kms to go before the junction where we’d head south into the big climb of the day, but it turns out the gas station was only about 100 meters from the roundabout. Happily all of the annoying trucks and most of the traffic headed left toward the Panamerican and left the litoral in relative peace, which was good because we needed some peace to deal with the effort of an 8 km climb in the mid-afternoon heat. There was a guy across the street chilling in a hammock at one of our rest stops and we were compelling enough to actually get out of the hammock and cross the road! I can’t even imagine what would be needed to get one of us out of a hot afternoon hammock nap. Perhaps an ice cream cart. He chatted with us a bit and, as seems to be the case with everyone we talk to here, eventually got into talking about “delinquencia,” which here seems to refer to gangs, extortion, robbery, etc. It’s a huge problem right now and everyone is affected. He told us that there is a lot of extortion and it’s so bad that a lot of his friends have left to the United States. Much of the gang problem began during the civil war (US involved, of course) when huge portions of the population fled to the US for asylum, but then ended up in ghettos in L.A. and other cities. Some of the younger generation started gangs and were then deported back to El Salvador where they thrived in the lawlessness and have since managed to become powerful. People here ask us if we’re afraid of the delinquencia, but we feel the same way about it as we did in Mexico. We are very aware of the fact that there are a lot of people who could be desperate enough to rob us, but also know that we are probably not at very high risk for violence. In fact, several people have told us that being gringo is a bit of a green card and that the gangsters generally won’t mess with us.
We arrived at the home of our Warm Showers host around 3:00 PM and were greeted by Jose’s wife and immediately shown the shower. She’s done this before. They do not have duchas calientes, but we wouldn’t have wanted one if they did. In fact, it was so hot that we showered again after it got dark because napping in a hammock all afternoon was so much effort that we’d gotten all sweaty again. I’m talking a lot about the heat because it is in reality quite sweltering, but I’ve been impressed by how well I’ve been able to handle it considering how much I hate being hot and how I turned into a little baby back in the Huasteca Potosoní in Mexico. I’ve been riding in my sandals since we got to El Salvador and that has surely helped. My feet haven’t gotten totally roasted like I’d expected, and it’s fantastic not to have to decide between digging out my sandals or sitting in boiling sweat crucibles whenever we stop. There are no gruesome socks to deal with either. The downside is that I am much more susceptible to biting insects and something really took a biting to me last night at the church. They felt like fire ants, but were much smaller than any I’ve seen before and I couldn’t actually see them in the semi-darkness. I can sure see the bites though; there are massive welts all over my feet. Luckily there have been almost zero mosquitoes around since we’ve gotten to the coast, leaving the little fascists that tormented me in Comasagua. We’ve even been able to sleep with the hammock nets unzipped.
We spent two nights hammocking in the framed-out extra rooms being built at Jose’s house. He told us how he’d built up his business (two or three stores in a nearby city) over the past several years from nothing. We asked if he’d had to deal with any extortion or any problems with gangs and he told us that “they” (unnamed members of the community) had eliminated the gangs in the area by taking out the top guy and then just killing them one by one until the lower guys just ran away. It’s a small area and everyone knows everyone else, so if someone gets involved with that stuff the whole community knows about it and so it’s easy to just kill them. No problem.
May 6, 2016
Again, going above the call of duty, he suggested we take his car the next day to go check out some of the local beaches.
May 7, 2016
After the Warm Showers stay we had a relatively short ride to La Union where we could catch the ferry to Nicaragua if we wanted – we still hadn’t decided what was next. La Union is on a huge bay with El Salvador and Nicaragua on opposite shores. Honduras has a narrow strip of land that drops down between the two countries to also access the Pacific at the top of this bay. There is a ferry across that would have skipped Honduras. It could have been a cool way to go, but we didn’t want to be so close and then skip riding in Honduras altogether. We had also been considering taking a detour in Honduras and riding to an island in the bay and/or turning inland to go through Tegucigalpa so we could get a little more riding in that country. In the end we decided to do what most people do and make a quick ride across the little strip. Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua have been moving towards greater unity and created the C-4 visa agreement that theoretically would allow for greater movement between the countries. For us it means we only have 90 days total to visit all four countries. We’d used up a lot of that in Guatemala and wanted to be able to take our time through Nicaragua, so we dispensed with the Honduras detours, although we waited until the very last minute to decide that.
We stopped at a roadside stand, but she didn’t have any pupusas. We were going to bail, but decided to try her bread with potatoes, which turned out to be little French breads with a bit of pan fried potato cubes spread inside. They were actually rather tasty and for a quarter, the price was right. It’s good we filled up on snacks. Our host had told us that we’d have no problem finding breakfast today, and if he meant once we got to our destination, he’d have been right. Otherwise, there wasn’t much of anything around aside from the potato lady, to our great pleasure.
We had been hoping to find a truck taxi to take us with our bikes up to a nearby volcano where we could camp and then ride down the next day. We asked all around but everyone wanted outlandish amounts to take us up, so we just decided to get a hotel and GTFO the next day. One of the guys at the square was a Salvadoran who grew up in New York and was visiting for a couple weeks. He insisted on showing us to the “best place in town”. He assured us that it was very clean. It’s where he always went to cheat on his wife. It was good enough for the likes of us and indeed, the women who ran the place were assiduous about keeping the joint clean. They were scrubbing out the drainage culvert in the garage/lobby when we arrived.
After spending so much time in Guatemala we were starting to feel a bit of time constraint so we hopped on a bus from Guatemala City to San Salvador in order to meet some friends of my mother who work for the embassy there before they went back to the States for vacation. Deanne, Vic and their kids were wonderful hosts and treated us to a taste of home in their truly gringo-style house where we were able to enjoy luxuries such as a massive fridge and flushing toilet paper. As an embassy family, they are required to live in special posh housing in the burbs. We had a laugh together about the huge amounts of security required for government staff housing, but of course if something happened to someone because of a supposed lapse in security, there would be such a sh!t storm. We left at the same time as they did and they had to have a guy come do a walk-through to make sure that all the security features were intact and that nobody was lurking around in the closets.
I know we took some additional photos while there, but they seem to have vanished.
After saying goodbye to our new friends, we wheeled over to Santa Tecla, a legit village that has been subsumed into the city by the engulfing suburban barf. The plan was to leave most of our crap in Santa Tecla with brothers Pepe and Hector whom I’d met in my Vipassana course in Guatemala. That lightened us up for a loop tour of some of the countryside we’d skipped on the bus.
April 28, 2016
Our first day out of the city would take us down an unearned descent for several miles to Joyas de Ceren. A car passed us slowly a couple km before the park and pulled over. Usually if people want us to stop, they’ll get out or wave out the window, but these two didn’t. We rolled past, but I somehow realized that was what they wanted, but were perhaps too shy, so we turned around. The sweet mother and her daughter wanted to chat and then handed us some cold sodas and snacks.
The pre-hispanic ruins of Joyas de Ceren are known as the “Pompeii of the Americas”. They were created when a nearby volcano erupted and buried this Mayan village in ash, which preserved the site. There was little warning, but unlike Pompeii, the inhabitants had just enough time to escape, although a duck was found tied up in the corner of a house.
Contrary to what we’d heard we were unable to camp at the ruins, but there was a balneareo nearby where we could pitch up for a few bucks and cool off in the pools to boot. The best part was having a roof so we didn’t have to use the stifling rain fly.
April 29, 2016
We took some farm roads out of Joyas the next day. It was a great ride, even if I was a bit on edge because the area seemed a bit depressed and there were some really sleazy guys watching us entering the dirt roads.
We chatted with this boisterous crew while breakfasting at a roadside shack and they insisted on paying. Pepe’s neighbor had given me a sort of necklace with two wood cylinders. I hadn’t understood what he said it was, but that he felt I should have it because of our trip. One of the guys asked if I knew what it was and the others said they were earplugs (horribly uncomfortable and dangerous earplugs). He called them fools and tried to explain, saying multiple times that it had something to do with Bear Grylls. It took a while before I finally understood he was saying, “escout”. Oh, scouts! I had a lot of difficulty in El Salvador because they use a lot of English words, but in a thick accent and with extra vowels. Apparently these wood pieces are difficult to get in scouts because you need to do something badass, so I am honored that their neighbor had felt I was worthy, although I’m not sure it’s justified. It’s just a bike ride.
We had a few hours to kill before bedtime so we went to hang out at the restaurant that was blasting Bob Marley rather than Banda. The proprietor was an eccentric but friendly guy who gave us gifts, showed off his decorations and gave us facials because, why not? There were also a couple of drunk guys there, one of whom kept telling us how he loved American music, especially once the Marley CD gave way to the cheesy 80’s power ballads.
April 30, 2016
We’d unwittingly gone to the wrong side of the lake so we annoyingly had even more miles on what would be a long-ish day, given the big climb to the top of the Cordillera Balsa mountain range at the end.
After that beautiful glamour shot road we were stuck riding for several miles on a very unpleasant highway with a worthless shoulder and plenty of fools. At least it was mostly downhill so it went quickly. We then turned off onto another small road that would take us up a long, steep climb to the top of the Cordillera Balsa. I had kind of underestimated/understated the extent of the climb while describing the day to Brandy. I may or may not have said something like, “well, we have a bit of a climb. It’s after 30 miles of riding, but I don’t think it’s too bad…”