El Salvador

When crossing the land borders, it’s nice to be prepared. Things can be slow or a little unpredictable so having all the correct paperwork makes things less stressful. Having to hide your cats, is not so straightforward. 

We had arrived later that we wanted when aforementioned cat did her disappearing trick for several hours. We were on the verge of staying another night when I spotted her sprawled out under a car. We figured we just had time still, so we said our goodbyes to Javier and headed for the border, only 40 minutes away. The process to leave and enter the most countries is similar. First, go to immigration and get yourself signed out, then head to the aduana office and sign the vehicle out. This normally takes longer. We had our passports stamped out in a matter of minutes, and then I went to sort the TIP for the car. After a rather long wait, I was summoned to the counter. The guy looked very confused by everything I presented him with, wandering around the office showing other people before eventually agreeing to check the vehicle. Lee ran ahead and put the cats out of sight, we bribed them into lying still on the floor with their cool mats fresh out the fridge. The guy asked if we had any dogs, I told him quite truthfully that we didn’t and really hoped he didn’t see the cats. There’s a lot of money and paperwork into ‘officially’ exporting them. Fortunately he just wanted to see the VIN number and we returned to the office. As the last of the paperwork was finalised, a great roll of thunder sounded above us and all of the lights went out. There were a few surprised screams and the power kicked back on, back outside with the papers sorted, Lee confirmed that we had just been hit by lightning. 

It was a dramatic way to leave Guatemala, as we now drove on through no mans land to the offices for El Salvador. Here the process is the same, immigration then aduana along with a million covid checks. After some more very lengthy car paperwork accompanied by that Latin American attitude towards speed, the guy finally came to check the camper. He didn’t care about the cats that were now refusing to stay in place and just spent five minutes pointing to lots of different things asking what they were for. He found it very amusing we had so much stuff attached to our tiny van. Finally, we drove out into El Salvador. It had been a success.

We parked up near the beach, in a restaurant that allowed campers to stop for free.

We arrived just in time to catch the sunset, and celebrated our arrival by not cooking. We ordered food and drinks and sat watching the sea. It’s always a relief to have the border crossing out of the way, despite the fact that we planned to do the next one in around 10 days. The time constraints of our visa were ever looming. 

Hanno and Kiki were already ahead in El Tunco trying out the surf, so we headed south down the coast the next day. We decided to stay a little closer to the town as the hostel they were at was pretty crowded for car parking. We also hoped to get Lee’s surfboard repaired. After an obligatory stop at a microbrewery, of course.

We headed for Cocoland resort, and agreed to park up on the back of their land next to their horse for $10 a night. We could use all the facilities and we didn’t hesitate to jump in the pool. The next night we met some locals and had a few too many drinks with them and learning more about life in El Salvador. As it was now a Sunday, we decided to leave to spend one more day here before leaving for San Salvador, the capital, on Monday. 

In the end, we never got the surfboard repaired but we figured we wouldn’t be needing it for a while anyway. We headed to San Salvador to buy ourselves a new speedo cable and gear shift connector, as well as do some decent shopping. As is always the case with big towns, there gets to be an ever growing list of things you need to do. Lee will want a vape shop, we will need a parts shop and I fruitlessly search for a new bikini. We successfully bought the parts for Ruby, and decided to call it a night. 

We headed out to one of the camping spots outside the city, where we could easily return in the morning to finish off the bits we wanted to do. We arrived at the exit but a friendly guard said we could camp and pointed us to the entrance. At the entrance we were greeted by a guy in the ticket office and an array of military. We paid and were about to enter we he asked us if we realised that the park shut at 10pm. Not quite sure what else he thought we would be doing turning up in the dark in a camper van but suddenly our overnight stop was no good. We drove to another park. This had a much rougher access road, an in the dark out step took rather a beating as the lowest point on the camper. Still, we had a lovely peaceful spot for the night. 

In the morning we headed to Burger King for coffee and wifi, determined to try and help offset our daily costs by making some money. We then went to sort out Claro. This company offers cell service to the entire of Central America, we had thought that our SIM card for Guatemela would be good for the next 6 countries too. Apparently this is not the case. It is not possible to top up a sim card from another country unless you also have a bank card. Never mind its the same company and network and that our data from Guatemala had continued to work in El Salvador until it ran out. We didn’t have much choice except to buy another SIM card.

We decided to try and sort that while we got Ruby steering pin swapped. We had bought it back in Guatemala, but didn’t have the tools to fit it. We opted for a local garage who worked with combis and left him to it while we went for lunch and to try and get a SIM card. The main competitor with Claro, is Tigo but you can’t have that unless you have a license from the country your buying the card in. We returned after our unsuccessful shopping and hour later, at least the camper was ready to go. It was now a little late in the day to be heading off anywhere new, so we returned back to the same spot for the night. It was lovely and cool up in the mountains behind the town, sometimes that’s worth every penny. 

Now bored of big city driving, we did a very expensive yet disappointing Walmart shop before heading west. One of the main tourist attractions here is Las Ruta de las Flores, a mountain road that has main pretty villages along it. Maybe we were out of season, but I can’t seem much evidence for why it was named the route of the flowers. We had opted for a spot in Juayua, now picking our camping based on wifi access, it’s pretty hard to do any route planning without the internet. 

We were only 5 minutes from the spot when there was an odd noise from the rear of the van and we slowly came to a stop, engine still running. I sat there, able to put the van into gear with the engine still on and without the use of the clutch pedal. It transpires that our drive shaft had fallen off the gearbox. Naturally, it had shredded several bolts as it went, so while Lee tried to space and refit the remaining bolts to get us there, I tried to refit the step we had just mended. It had taken us over an hour to remove the bracket for it to be welded and we had been driving around with the step held onto the camper with a bungey cord. This was pretty irritating, as the only thing to tie it to was the door handle, meaning we had spent two days not being able to open the passenger door. 

In the midst of our repairs a local couple pulled up, oblivious to the tools everywhere and feet sticking out from under the van, they wanted photos. While they posed and snapped away at the back, I wrestled the step into place and Lee had salvaged three out of the six bolts from the drive shaft. Photoshoot over, we hesitantly drove the last few kilometres to the Cafe Granja Don Alvaro. This is a family run farm and restaurant that lets iOverlanders stay for free in the field car park. It was a nice spot, the only downside being the internet was a lie. Still, we had a good night before waking up to deal with our driveshaft problem. 

We opted to take the chicken bus into town, which was slightly exciting as we had never been in one and it was the first glimpse at the space we would have in what we hoped to make our future home. Once in town we found a shop that sold bolts and bought some replacements, before locating real wifi. With a plan in mind, we hopped back on the bus and went back to the farm. After refitting the new bolts, we set off for Volcano Santa Ana. 

I will blame the lack of internet on our incredibly illogical route at this point. We realised that Juayua has a food festival on the weekend, so we would need to come back. In the meantime we went to the Volcano. Not trusting google’s shortcut, we drove the long way around to Hotel El Tibet.

Hikes leave from here to the volcano crater every day and we stayed in their car park ready for the next day. I treated myself to a hot shower, rather a process as they only had a cold one. I don’t think they saw me laden with buckets and our cooking stove as I headed to the bathroom but I maintain that it was well worth the effort. It was a cold foggy day and the last thing I needed was a cold shower to match it. 

The following morning, there was already a large group assembling in the car park at around 9.30am. We paid the obligatory $3per person for the ‘guide’  and headed off. The park entrance fee is double if your foreign, something quite common here parking it a bit of an expensive walk in my opinion. Yet again the weather looked pretty miserable. They explained we didn’t get a refund if it was cloudy at the entrance, a promising start. 

However as we climbed, there were breaks in the cloud and while it never fully cleared to give us a great view, we were able to enjoy the walk. Compared to some other hikes we had done recently, this one was a breeze. At the second viewpoint the out of breath guide waved the group ahead of her while she recovered and we continued to the summit.

From the top, you look down into a crater full of bright blue water, which you can see boiling. We enjoyed an ice cream at the top, before leaving our useless guide behind and heading down on our own. 

created by dji camera

It’s a short enough walk and with a relatively early start we still had the day ahead of us. We made our way towards restaurante El Faro del Lago, where we planned to spend the night before heading back to Juayua. We droving past some rather lovely views of lake Coatepeque before arriving at our spot. It had a very tourist Lake Atitlan vibe to it here, but was pleasant enough. We had a few beers in the restaurant to pay for our spot, but chose to leave their rather uninspiring food menu alone. 

Now the weekend, we headed back to Juayua. The food at the market was much better on our return. A little meat based, as you might expect but also featuring some rather good Chinese dumpling that you probably wouldn’t expect. After rounding things off with a michelada and a rather good tortilla soup we headed north to camp in the town of Ahuachapán.

This is when we truly peak for being disorganised. We had driven through the town early, without checking the camping spot. We returned, didn’t like it and ended up back at the farm in Juayua. After this endless faffing, we were welcomed once again this time by the owner. We had a good chat with him and met one of his sons before having another free and quiet night. 

In the morning, we bought some fresh cheese and this time, said goodbye for good. Despite the fact that I had said the day before I wouldn’t drive that road again, we headed north once more. 

We felt we hadn’t really seen much that made this the highlight of the country, and so we stopped to visit another village on the way. Ataco is famous for its artensal market, which no matter if it’s all made in china or actually the real deal,  I have a weakness for.  

It’s also got a lot of beautiful murals on many buildings in the town. We went for a wander. 

Our last visit in the local area was to a geothermal field, as it sounded a little different, before heading to Sochitoto our final stop in El Salvador. 

The geothermal field is only a quick stop and costs a dollar each. Its a pretty non-descript field until you smell the sulphur when you walk in. Then you are greeted by a muddy puddle on the floor, wouldn’t be all that interesting apart from the fact that it is boiling loudly. Towards the river there are more vents of this kind, and one large area where water steams and splashes out of the floor. Needless to say you can’t get that close and it’s an odd to sight to see. I walked around a little, but then realised that most of the floor was boiling around me and not wanting to get it wrong in my very cheap, thin flip flops I retreated to safer rockier ground. 

Now we drove on to Sochitoto, another picturesque lake spot, stopping off to photocopy the necessary documents for the border on the way. 

We had planned to stay at the viewpoint for the lake, it looked rather lovely, but when we arrived towards the end of the afternoon we were told we couldn’t stop. It seems luck of the draw with that one as to who is on the gate. With not many options we drove around to El Mangal restaurant. We were pleasantly surprised by the staff and the owner who were very friendly and accommodating towards us, you can’t always trust the reviews. After a long hot drive, we cooled off in the pool. 

After a long drive, it was nice to spend a day exploring the town before the next stint to the border. We caught the local bus up the hill and headed to a rather fancy restaurant to have a few nibbles with a view. 

Then, probably against our better judgement we decided to walk to the waterfall in the midday sun. This is at the viewpoint we had wanted to stay at and a good few kilometres out of town. We had thought to take a taxi but when none appeared or wanted to stop for us when they did, we walked.

The waterfall itself is not particularly big, but it’s geology is quite interesting. Im sure someone with more knowledge than me can explain how and why the rocks formed in this way. 

It’s worth the stop not only for that, but for the views of the lake itself.

We made our way back to town the blistering humid afternoon sun, stopping for drinks on the way. We opted for one more night at the nice restaurant before we made the three hour drive to the border the following morning. El Salvador had been short and sweet, but maybe that was good as we were definitely feeling the price increase here. 

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